Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I’m Talented—Dammit! Why Can’t I Sell Anything?

I recently worked with a writer who was beside himself with despair. He has been writing for years. He has been writing in every genre. He has been writing in every form: poetry, novels, short stories, narrative nonfiction, screenplay, play, automatic writing, everything. He has tried writing partners, writing alone, following a schedule, writing at random, dictating, stream of consciousness, writing software, you name it. With back against wall and painted into his own little corner of literary Hell, he decides he needs consulting help and that this will, at long last, reveal to him the secrets of why his writing is going nowhere fast.

He knows he’s talented (and he is). He knows he’s a storyteller (and he is). And he knows this is the work he must do (and it is). So—why can’t he sell anything? And then the plaintive cry, “Isn’t it enough to be talented? What the hell to they want from me?” “They,” of course, meaning agents, studios, producers, etc.

And so, here lies the problem. And herein lies the lesson. In all his fussing, ruckus, commotion, and tumult no one ever told him the greatest truth every writer (or artist) needs to hear on day one of their writing career: No! The beaches of Malibu are littered with the bodies of talented writers. T
alent isn’t enough. “WHAT?!” Comes the shocked reply, “Then what the #@!% is?”

The response to this greatest truth is a single word: craft. Craft is what makes talent enough. Here was a guy who had a magical way with phrases, wording, subtext, and verbal imagery. But he didn’t know a semi-colon from a steak sandwich and was clueless about the basics of English usage. Beyond the idea of using three acts and having a main character, he had as much use for story structure principles as a concussion.

This poor soul was never told that craft informs talent; not the other way around. There are lots of talented people out there. In fact, everyone has a talent of some kind. Talent is given (by God, Goddess, The Great Pumpkin, whoever). Craft is learned taught by a master, teacher, mentor, or drill sergeant. Talent is part of who you are. Craft is part of what you do. Without craft, talent will always remain in potential; it will never be more than a pale reflection of what it could become.

Craft takes discipline, confidence, perseverance, and practice. Talent takes passion, intuition, trust, and spontaneity. Marry all these together and you find the artist. Lose or deny any one of them and you have the artisan. This is not to say that an artisan is less than an artist! No, no, no. In fact, artisans who master whatever craft ALWAYS find their talent and cannot help but become artists of that craft. But, there is a relationship that exists between craft and talent that must be understood. Even if you come at it through your talent first, you must always come back through craft to truly find the full expression of talent.

To be the artist, as writer, you must learn your craft. This means: grammar, spelling, punctuation, story structure principles, formats and styles, vocabulary, and the tools of the trade. Then with
discipline, confidence, perseverance, and practice, practice, practice master the trade; become a master artisan. This takes time. This takes effort. This takes work. This takes patience.

Then something magical happens. Craft skills lift. Talent, always present, begins to stir. Craft gets honed. Talent finds its avenue and begins to flow. Craft becomes second nature, elegant, graceful. Talent finds its voice and soars. Okay, kind of corny and romance novelish, but this is what happens. It's a beautiful thing. Craft is the door and talent is what passes through it from potential to actuality. In time, the two are indistinguishable. You are the craftsperson and the artist and there is no telling them apart. This is the master of their craft and the self-realized creator. This is what we all strive for and what takes a lifetime to achieve—AND WE NEVER GET THERE. As good as we get, there is always more. As frustrating as this may sound, that we never get there, the good news is we become more for the striving.

Craft and talent; learn one to release the other. Learn your craft. And practice, practice, practice.


Jeff Bach said...

Never thought of talent and craft like this. But the more I read the more I agree. Very well thought out and very well written!

Jeff Lyons said...


Thanx so much. Appreciate it.