Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Honing Talent

Thank you so much for your comments yesterday! I had so much to say that I thought I would just throw it all into one post. I want to talk about how I've changed as an artist/writer over the years.

First off, I'd like to clarify that I'm not sad about this whole wanting-to-create-a-masterpiece-and-not-being-able-to business. I totally get that every artist, big and small, goes through this. That's why it's the artist's battle. An unending, internal battle that propels you forward if you don't admit defeat.

I also want to thank all of you who said I was talented. I really appreciate that—let's face it, hearing that someone thinks you have potential never gets old. But I've learned that talent isn't, well, enough. It's a great start, but it won't get you "there" in the end.

Wait, don't panic. I have a story! (Several, really.)

I've always been naturally inclined to write and draw. Even when I was little (like 5), I could see that my drawings were a cut above the kids in my class. I won a young writer's award for a book I wrote and illustrated when I was 6.

I rode on my talent for a long time. I didn't really need to work or improve because in my little world I was already one of the best.

Then I moved, and I met a girl named Cherise. This girl made my drawings look elementary. She drew anime like a professional, at least to my eye. At first it made me feel stupid—why did I ever think I was a good artist? But then I realized something.

Cherise always had a pencil in her hand. She hardly stopped practicing. She'd taken what was probably a natural talent and put in hard work.

I'd never really, honestly tried to improve. I drew for fun, and fairly often, but it wasn't like I was studying. Cherise had art books. She studied other artists. She took it seriously. (Note: At least this is what I saw in my 7th grader head, I can't remember the specifics.)

I could have given up. I could have accepted that she would always be better than me and that was okay. But I didn't. I got my own notebook, and I drew and drew. My left hand was basically dirty with pencil, charcoal, chalk, paint, etc. for the next six years.

I haven't seen Cherise in more than a decade—I don't know if I ever "surpassed" her. But that's not the point. That was never the point. I've surpassed myself over and over. I wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't put in the work to hone my natural talent. And I wouldn't have done that if Cherise didn't inspire me to improve.

I know I'm still not as incredible an artist as some, but trying to be incredible has brought me closer to that dream! Recognizing that there are people out there who draw or dance or write better than you isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think it's the beginning of the path to improvement. Of course you shouldn't spend your whole life comparing and feeling like crap, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that you're an apprentice and choosing to learn from a master!

Actually, it's been the way of artists for centuries.

You'd think I'd have learned my lesson from this experience with Cherise, but I didn't. I in no way applied this newfound diligence to writing.

I wrote a lot for fun. Angsty teen poetry. Journal rants. Even a book/regurgitation of every anime I'd seen up to that point. I printed the "book" off for my friends in chapters. And they would tell me how awesome it was and beg for more. I thought I was some Big Shot writer. I laugh at the thought now. Oh, I was so cute.

But then I met Ms. Woolsey. You know how there's always that cool English teacher everyone likes? Well, she was the one. I was very excited to be in her class, to show off how awesome my writing was.

Our first big paper was on Macbeth. I pretty much thought I rocked it. I had all these good points and was so original. She was hardcore, but she'd see my talent right away just like everyone else.

She gave me a C-.

My first C-. Ever.

I bawled. Because of that C-, I got an A- that term and my 4.0 was ruined. I felt so stupid. Here I thought I was some amazing writer. I don't remember the exact words of her crit, but it was something like "good ideas, but the writing is sloppy and raw."

I'd relied on my talent, once again, without taking the time to hone my skills. And by 11th grade my writing talent wasn't enough anymore. I had to work, and I did work even though I really wanted to crawl under the desk every time I looked at Ms. Woolsey.

I didn't quite learn the lesson like I did with drawing, though. After that C-, I stopped writing creatively. Sure, I learned to rock the literary analysis thing, but I gave up on my dreams of a book. Decided I wasn't cut out for it. That was pretty much the worst mistake of my life.

I hate thinking how much better a writer I could be if I'd just practiced for the five years I didn't write stories. I could have been honing my talent, getting closer to that masterpiece.

Anyway, lesson learned.

Some of the comments yesterday said stuff like "just write it." And maybe a couple years ago I would have agreed with that. But now I know better. Just writing—just getting those words on the paper—isn't quite enough. I wrote a lot of books that are basically at the same crappy level. Yes, every word helps you improve, but I promise you will improve even more if you push harder.

It wasn't until I sought real, technical training that I improved. It wasn't until I treated my story like a potential masterpiece that it got better. It wasn't until I trained under a few "masters" that I really started to understand this story-telling business.

Talent is only a starting point. No matter how much you have, hard work and goals will always get you more of it. Sure, there may be people who are always better or worse, but that is no reason to stay still, to not try to get where you personally want to be.

So yes, I still ache to write my own definition of a masterpiece. And I don't think that's such a bad thing.


  1. Beautiful post!! I identified ALL the way through! I'm also an artist/writer and my Cherise was called Rachel and as jealous as I was of her talent, both in writing and illustrating, the more I saw her draw and writer, the better I wanted to be myself. I don't know what she's up to now, whether she is writing or drawing anymore... but I am, and that is what matters most!

  2. This is a fantastic post! Thank you for your honesty and motivation.

  3. I completely relate. All throughout middle school, high school, and even college, I was the best writer in my English classes. I knew what I was putting down was actually pretty crappy compared to what I could do, but I was lazy and all my teachers fell for it. They claimed I had this remarkable talent. So I never practiced or tried to get better. I figured I was already the best and if someone better came along, I could easily improve with little effort.

    Alas, I'm an adult now and surrounded by a bunch of people who were also the best in their creative writing classes. I wish I had worked harder years ago. Instead, I feel like I'm trying to play catch up.

    I've had those exact feelings about writing my masterpiece. I feel like I would have been so much closer to it if only I hadn't been lazy.

  4. Thanks for sharing this story! I rode a similar talent wave as a kid, but never put the work into my art that I should have. Writing came easier—or so I thought, until I got outside opinions.

    Now I work at getting better everyday by reading critically and writing to the best of my abilities.

    Or so I think. ;) There's always room to get better, just as long as you stay true to yourself!

  5. Rock freaking ON, Natalie!

    "I rode on my talent for a long time. I didn't really need to work or improve because in my little world I was already one of the best."

    UGH, how I wish that weren't so dang true for me too. But like you, I've learned (slowly -- oh so painfully slowly) that it's not enough, and that I could be so much better if I put in the time and effort.

    But hey, better late than never, right? So go us. Late to the party, but planning to dance harder, sing louder, and stay up later than anyone else! ;)

  6. I just want more time to write.

    And I wish I felt more confidence. I see my own writing students (college composition) try to get by with very little work, yet I often wonder why, even with the work I do on my own stuff, I still always have so far to go.

    I ache to achieve something beyond mediocrity...

  7. Yep, a little comparison sure helps sometime. I can SO relate, especially regarding my artwork. I went to a college that had very few art majors; I had no external push. It was much harder to progress; I didn't for a long time.

    To quote Albert Einstein: "Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work." My daughters operated this way all thru their high school years. They had beautiful voices but didn't want to apply themselves, thinking that their raw talent was enough. In the end, they fizzled out and didn't go to college or develop their talent. Such a waste!

  8. I think every writer can relate to this post. Talent is never enough. We have to put in the hard work and effort to make our dreams come true. Oh, and we must believe we can do it. Always.

    Good luck!

  9. Always learning, always growing....I don't think I'll ever get to a point where I say "Yep, I am the best I can ever be."

  10. Great post! I can definitely relate. Don’t feel too bad about those “lost years” in high school. I spent years in high school riding on my own talent. And like you, I had the same problem with a wonderful English teacher who gave me the rude awakening that talent isn’t enough to write well. But even then, I spent years writing book after book without really trying to improve my craft. Then I did NaNoWriMo, and decided to get “serious” about writing. That was two years ago, and I am STILL trying to hone my writing skills.
    I think talent helps you get through the first hurdle of writing, but it’s hard work that brings you the rest of the way.
    As for not having the technical skill to write your “masterpiece” I can understand knowing that you’re just not there yet. But I have also realized that after I got “serious” about writing I put a lot of pressure on myself to write well, and it stunted my writing. Now when I set out to write something, I always tell myself “it’s just for me, no one else has to see it”. Even if it’s not true, it makes me feel less like the entire world is hanging on every sentence.

  11. I think most of us feel the same way. Hang in there! You ARE talented:)

  12. Thanks for the reminder that we all need to hone our talents to make them sing.


  13. Ahhh, so true. But I also think there is danger in comparing ourselves to others. We're really only in competition with ourselves, in the end.

  14. I remember going through this in college, and now I've gone through it again, and then I look around and realize I'm in the middle of realizing it again and again and again. Discipline is the real key to success. For some it's a lucky chance, but I think those who work at it every second (like your friend always drawing) are the ones who end up the most satisfied in the end - no matter what that end is.

    This is such a great post. You always write the most inspiring things!

  15. Whoa, wait--you're left-handed? You just earned about fifteen extra awesome points!

  16. So, yup, I'm officially inspired. I want the writing equivalent to the paint-smudged hand. :)

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  18. Yes. Absolutely yes. But you already knew I felt that way.

    It does remind me I need to read a book on writing again. It's been too long.

  19. Now I have to work harder. I don't know whether to thank you or cuss you under my breath!

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  21. A question for you, Natalie: What type of training did you invest in? What about it was so helpful? Are there any courses that you would personally recommend?

  22. Hi Natalie; I've been following your blog closely for about a month now and I love it.

    A few months ago I started a short story about Angel, a quirky fifteen-year-old daughter of a hyper-successful, absentee mother and how Angel plots to get her mom fired. Angel's mom leaves her job and Angel learns that having an at-home mom isn't all its cracked up to be. The story is still going, and I think I've inadvertently begun a YA novel.

    "Just writing—just getting those words on the paper—isn't quite enough."

    This is what I needed to hear today, because I've been writing my novel in a stream of consciousness fashion for the past several months--patting myself on the back for hitting my word target each day. I've been afraid to stop and look at what I've got so far and think about it on a meta level for fear of interfering with this "natural process." But it's time for me to start reading other YA Family novels and thinking strategically about my story.

    Thanks for all your help!


  23. Natalie, I think this is my first time checking out your blog! It's really cool.

    Anyway, what sort of "technical training" have you found most helpful? I feel like at different points I've really tried to think about how to improve the quality of my work and have read writing books., but eventually they all sort of sound similar. Reading is of course always good, but hard to figure out a structured application of this. I feel like I tend to think of it more as internalizing and then hoping it makes my writing better. Any thoughts?