A recent email newsletter from Jeff Goins posed the question, “is writing a gift or a skill?” That is, are you a gifted writer, or did you work at it?
The better question is, “are the things we do well born within us (innate or a gift) or are they developed through hard work (learned or a skill).
It’s an age-old philosophical question: are we born with all the knowledge and abilities within us, and that knowledge is uncovered as we go through life? Or are we a blank slate, a tabula rasa, and we fill that slate up as we go through life?
I lean more toward the blank slate side. That we learn what we know through experience, rather than uncovering it. That it takes hundreds and thousands of hours to get good at anything. That we need to practice over and over and over to get something right.
For those people who are very good at what they do — writing, football, music — we work our asses off at it every day. It’s not a gift, it’s not innate. There’s no such thing as a gifted writer.
To call it a gift is to minimize that hard work. It says that only by some quirk of fate and randomly firing neurons did we become writers, athletes, and musicians. It means that we don’t have to work at it, we just have to discover that we’re good at it, and then run with that. It means you can pick up that skill any time you want, and with a little bit of work, you can be awesome a it.
The Myth of the Gifted Writer
While there certainly are people who have specific gifts, these gifts are usually physical in nature, and can’t be developed. For example, Peyton Manning is 6’5″, which contributes to his success as a quarterback, but that’s a gift. You can’t learn “tall.”
But beyond that, the person’s skills — strength, quickness, shooting ability, hand-eye coordination, game knowledge, even Manning’s laser rocket arm — are all developed and/or learned. You can train and learn everything else. You can work out and gain strength. There are drills that will develop quickness. Even fast-twitch muscles can be developed and enhanced (and built up). You may never be as strong as a lineman or as fast as a sprinter, but you can certainly do it better than most people you know just by working at it for a while.
Think of it this way:
- Peyton Manning is a student of the game, and has been since he was a young boy. He watches countless hours of game film over and over so he can understand and learn what every opponent and coach does in certain situations. He will even watch the game film of a head coach’s former boss to see where the coach learned his game calling skills. The guy is a computer who dumps GBs of data into his brain like they were candy.That’s knowledge and experience learned over the years.
- After Manning was forced to take 2011 off, he had to rehab not only his neck, but his arm. Sports journalists talked about how Manning’s arm had lost its zip, and they worried that he lost his ability. But his arm strength is back and the laser rocket arm is firing correctly again. That’s not a gift, or the strength would never have gone away. That’s exercise and redeveloping muscle memory.
- Several years ago, the US Women’s Softball team had an unusual training exercise to improve their reaction time. Their coach had written different numbers on different tennis balls, one per ball. He then fired them out of a pitching machine while the women took batting practice. They had to call out the number they saw before they swung the bat. He was teaching/training them to see and react faster.
- WNBA Indiana Fever player Katie Douglas grew up in Greenwood, Indiana, graduated from Purdue University, and is now a star in the WNBA. A few weeks ago she became only the 10th player to score 5,000 points in her career. But she got that way because she spent countless hours shooting baskets, over and over and over, from the time she was a little girl up until she scored that 5,000th point. And she still does it. She wasn’t a gifted athlete, she worked constantly.
- One of the things that every good writer did when he or she was little was read, and read a lot. In fact, they still read constantly. And writing expert after writing expert will tell you that the best way to practice writing, other than actually writing, is reading other people’s work. That’s because we’re still learning and honing our craft
- When you listen to stories of successful musicians and how they started out, especially the guitar players, they’ll tell you the same thing every time: “I used to play for hours at a time. I was obsessed. I would just sit there and try to learn that new song from the radio, and play it over and over until I got it right.” I met a guy this past Sunday, the lead guitarist for The Plateros. At age 20, he’s better than most guitarists. I asked him how long he had been playing. He said he started when he was 9, and would come home from school every day, start playing, and play until bedtime. At 4 hours a day, that’s 1,000 hours a year. In 10 years, he’s put in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to become an outlier.
My point is this: nobody is gifted. Nobody picks up a guitar and starts playing at age 27, and is immediately awesome. Tall, athletic kids don’t go out for the high school football team for the first time, and become the starting quarterback. Serena and Venus Williams were not goofing around with tennis rackets one day and decided to give this tennis thing a try.
Every one of them worked hard from way back when they were kids and pursued their dream of doing what they loved when they were adults. They developed the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue the game. There was no gift. There were just thousands of hours of hard work.
So it goes with writers. We were all readers as little kids. We all liked telling stories, and even wrote them down. And we did it obsessively, never realizing that we were building skills that would make us writers when we were adults.
Is writing a gift? No, unless you count the gift of those thousands of hours we all used to read and write when we could have been playing football, tennis, or a guitar.
If writing was so easy, then every athlete who wrote a book wouldn’t have a co-author.
Photo credit: Donovan Beeson (Flickr, Creative Commons)