Is Writing a Learned Skill or a Natural Talent?

Picture of Seth AbramsonAuthor: Seth Abramson

In the arts, there is often a focus on the people who seem to have unbelievable innate skill—Mozart, Picasso, Beethoven. Do you feel that this sort of raw natural talent is equally possible in poetry?

I do. I think one of the many inspiring things about daily living is how often we unexpectedly come into contact with people whose way of seeing the world is absolutely singular, whose way of expressing themselves cannot be readily replicated by anyone else. And I think that sort of singularity—which is sometimes unfairly cast as eccentricity or (even more dismissively) mere idiosyncrasy—is what often leads to greatness in the literary and visual arts. But I don’t think it’s always a question of “skill,” either; being an artist takes courage, too, and commitment, so I’ve no doubt there are those who might not stand out in terms of their “skill” but whose willingness to explore the unknown, and to inhabit intellectual and emotional gray areas for long stretches of time, is unsurpassed. I believe this latter kind of “raw natural talent” is also spectacular and enviable.

Do you feel there is a point where drive and ambition can be thwarted by a poets own limitations? Or is it possible for any writer to create astonishing work given the right conditions?

I think we all have limitations, and that our limitations limit us, and that those limitations are (unfortunately) not merely reserved for things most of us care little about. In other words, the more an endeavor asks of us—and Art asks quite a lot, I feel—the more certain it is that, at some point, our limitations will be brought to bear in some way. But that said, I’ve never met a person of superlative drive and ambition who was incapable of astonishing me—in Art or in any other setting—and so just as much as I see limitation as an ineluctable element of all human endeavors, I also don’t think it’s any kind of barrier to creating astonishing work. It’s true, what might take one writer two years of study and experience and imagination and effort to produce might take another (one with different innate capacities) five, ten, or twenty years even when/if they invest the same volume of study and experience and imagination and effort—but life is certainly long enough that basically anyone can produce astonishing writing in time. Some may even do so accidentally! (This is true, in part, because astonishing work is as often as not the result of an astonishing compositional process as an astonishing degree of craft; and as the former and latter may call for different skill-sets, sometimes those who struggle with craft nevertheless excel by the measure of compositional imagination.) If this sort of optimism seems, somehow, instinctively untrue to us, it is only, I think, because those aspiring poets and writers we’ve seen who never seem to improve very much in what they do are—almost to a man or woman—either reading the wrong authors (and thus only poorly developing that absolutely-essential quantity of “historical sense”), or communicating with the wrong peers or mentors, or in some other way using models for living and/or writing that are unhelpful to them.

How much do you feel economic position has to do with what is perceived as talent in the poetry community?

I think, though I wish it were otherwise, that economics plays a substantial role in determining who gets read, and when, and by whom, and in what contexts. But it would be even better—more accurate—to say that “socioeconomics” play a substantial role in determining these things, as I think we must not forget the emotional and cultural component of Art.

I’ve felt, for many years now, that the most disadvantaged literary artists are not those who are poor, but those who are shy; if one is loath to join a community of fellow-travelers, one is likely to find one’s work buried in a sea of writing from those more gregarious and extroverted. While it’s true that the advantage contemporary writers have over, say, Emily Dickinson is that even an agoraphobic author can now easily send his or her work to literary magazines or publishers and get some nominal exposure that way, it’s almost impossible to build an audience, or—as I think is more important and valuable—to join the ongoing national conversation regarding poetry and poetics if one cannot or is unwilling to interact with other authors via readings, reading groups, conferences, workshops, and so on. What economic struggles can do is simulate this sort of incapacity by making it financially or logistically difficult for a writer to participate fully in the national literary arts community.

I think that, quite unintentionally, the “book contest” culture we poets in particular are suffused in does, over time, begin to push out those who can’t afford to submit their manuscript thirty times a year at twenty-five dollars or more a pop. While I’ve not yet submitted my work that often—or even half that often—I’ve had to think long and hard about how I would accommodate that sort of submission practice financially if the circumstances demanded it. And the short answer is, as a graduate student that kind of submission practice would be financially prohibitive for me. It’s enough of a financial strain to try to go to AWP every other year, or drive out to see non-local readings that interest me (say, in Chicago, or Minneapolis, or Iowa City, or Milwaukee) when these too can end up costing a good deal of money. So yes, having the sort of financial portfolio that allows one to go on book tours, attend conferences, query countless publishers, network face-to-face with editors and agents, buy others’ books en masse, et cetera, does matter. (Though I want to also give kudos to those poets and writers who manage to do many of these things on a shoestring budget. Even then, though, such resourcefulness is usually only possible because these folks involved are well-connected; that hypothetical agoraphobe I mentioned above probably doesn’t have too many couches available to him or her when s/he is traveling.)

How, or is it possible, to tell one’s own level of talent?

I don’t know that there’s much utility in a poet or writer thinking about this. That kind of question should really only arise in situations in which the answer will be instrumental: For instance, we do sometimes need to know, am I ready to attend (or am I at all interested in) a graduate creative writing program? And which graduate creative writing programs am I likely to receive admission to, if I’m interested in going down that road? Or which literary magazines or publishers are likely to enjoy my work? In those instances one has something at stake in the answer: One can only apply to so many graduate creative writing programs, submit to so many magazines or publishers, and so on. But if someone loves to write poetry or fiction and is asking themselves that question to decide whether they should stop, my advice is: Never stop. And don’t let anyone, anywhere, tell you to stop. Frankly, if you can be stopped, you’re not a writer in the first instance. If someone is asking that question, instead, simply to determine who their audience is, or whether and how they can use their poetry or fiction to improve the lives of others, or where and when to make poetry-writing or fiction-writing a part of their workaday life, my advice is: Ask those questions, but don’t get mired in qualitative self-assessments. In the end, what does “talent” matter, except to a quitter? I don’t mean this as harshly as it sounds: I simply mean that if one is abidingly committed to the literary arts, one will work hard no matter what others say, seek opportunities to improve no matter what others say, and take pride in one’s own course of improvement no matter what others say. So again, self-questioning regarding “talent” should only arise when practical concerns intrude, and in such situations my advice is of the dreary, esoteric kind I hate to even give: Read the work currently published in a magazine to try to compare your own writing to what you see there; “test” your work by putting it in the hands and before the eyes of other writers or editors or writer-editors whose judgment and vision you trust; seek out opportunities to exercise and explore and shape your own talent, whether that be in a graduate creative writing program, a community workshop, or some other setting in which you will dialogue with others on (among many other things) the topic of your own abilities. But can we assess our own talent in a vacuum? Not accurately, no. But there are certainly those who need such vacuum-sealed self-assessments to maintain the courage to keep writing, and to them I say, have at it. Whatever keeps your spine straight.

What advice would you give to a writer concerned about his or her own level of talent? What do you feel is the most enduring quality a writer can harness in his or her work?

As to the first question, I’d probably just end up repeating my answer above, so I’ll stick with what I said there.

As to the second question: Courage. The courage to write even when and if you don’t know why or whether your writing will ever be read; the courage to fail to meet your own expectations, not through lack of effort but lack of opportunity or time or skill or experience; the courage to receive influences without fetishizing them; the courage to act nobly even in the midst of literary subcommunities in which noble action is not prized; the courage to be honest in one’s writing and in all one’s dealings with language and those who cherish language; the courage to experiment, to wonder, to surprise oneself. No great writer lacks courage, and no great writing is anything less than brave. Such self-awareness and self-possession and consequences-be-damned passion ought infuse every word a poet or writer writes and each action one takes in one’s role as poet or writer.