Thursday, March 5, 2015

YA Guy Talks about... Talent!

Recently, YA Guy noticed an essay that was making quite a stir on Twitter: a piece by a former MFA teacher, Ryan Boudinot, that advanced a number of claims including the following:
  1. Writers are born with talent.
  2. If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.
  3. If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
Lots of Twitter folks had issues with Boudinot's essay--not surprisingly, since he obviously wrote it to tick people off. And I'll grant, the tone of the essay, as well as some of its specifics, were annoying.

But I have to be honest: as both a teacher and a writer, I find a core of truth in the above three statements (however snidely phrased). Taken together, they define a basic formula:


Is there any sane person who disagrees with that? Yes, it's true that lots of other factors play a role in success: luck, timing, nepotism, skin color and other visible or invisible markers of privilege, and thus that some people without much talent, effort, or persistence do very well in life (while others with lots of talent, effort, and persistence don't). It's also true that "talent" and "success" are very broad terms, capable of being expressed in a great variety of ways.

But on the whole, isn't it the case that those who hone their innate gifts through a lengthy period of time are putting themselves in the best possible position to achieve success as they themselves define it?

Some of those who responded to Boudinot's essay objected to his claim that talent counts in writing. Why should this claim be controversial? Talent counts in everything else. I'm a pretty good baseball player (even at the age of fifty). But I was never good enough for the majors. I did well in high school math. But I never had the aptitude to be a mathematician or astrophysicist. I can follow a recipe on a box. But I don't possess the keenly refined senses necessary to be a great chef.

Personally, I'm more insulted by the proposition that anyone, anywhere, can learn to be a writer. To me, this demeans the craft and profession of writing; it suggests that writing is no more than a bagful of tricks that can be distributed to anyone with the time or money to collect them.

MFA programs have proliferated in the past couple decades--due not to some mysterious increase in the number of talented writers nor to breakthroughs in the teaching of writing but to colleges and universities recognizing a growth market and capitalizing on it. Personally, were I teaching in such a program, I would choose to be honest with a student who exhibited significant deficits in the areas of talent, effort, and/or persistence. I wouldn't tell that student to drop out, but I'd investigate what that student wanted from the program. If the student wanted to develop his/her skills, have fun, interact with others, possibly publish a bit, I'd say okay, you're in the right place. But if that student labored under the illusion that he/she was going to become a literary sensation, I'd consider it unethical (the student is, after all, paying a lot of money for this) not to tell him/her that such an outcome was unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely.

I just finished reading Anthony Doerr's bestselling ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. I had some issues with it (see my previous post on this), but is there anyone who doubts that Doerr is a phenomenal talent, a writer with remarkable gifts? I'm currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA with my son. Does anyone doubt Le Guin's astonishing, jaw-dropping talent? Does anyone doubt that both of these writers honed their innate gifts through years of hard work? And does anyone believe that everybody could be just as good as these two writers (and many others I might name) if everybody had a teacher willing to work with them for however long it took?

Well, I don't believe this, anyway. Doerr and Le Guin (and many others) are just flat-out more talented than I am or ever will be, and I'm no more ashamed to admit that than I am to admit that Pittsburgh Pirates center-fielder Andrew McCutchen generates considerably faster bat speed than I can or ever could.

We can criticize Boudinot for his condescending tone, insensitive remarks, and sexist assumptions (though really, we'd probably have been better off not rising to his bait). But I don't think we should criticize him for stating the uncomfortable truth that writing is not only an occupation but a discipline and a gift.


  1. I haven't read Boudinot's essay, but I have seen the angry fall-out from it. The thing that most annoys me is the new trend for "trying to achieve notoriety by ticking off as many people as possible." It's already the norm in politics, apparently, and now it has moved into the world of publishing.

    As for talent, yes I agree. To be successful, a writer has to have talent. But it may not be talent for writing. It might be a talent for realizing what people want to read and capitalizing on it -- thus explaining the success of 50 Shades of Gray. Could it be that Boudinot's real talent lies in being condescending, insensitive, and sexist and not his writing at all? ;)

    1. I think you've pretty much nailed it! :)

  2. I live near Seattle so that article really made the rounds, and a lot of his former students spoke out. But I thought it was honest. Harsh, but honest. Especially the line about anyone who tells you they have the publishing industry figured out is a liar.

    There are SO many people/websites/agencies out there trying to make money off of aspiring writers that it is definitely buyer beware.

    Your point, Josh, goes along the same lines of how annoying it is to hear somebody say "When I retire from being a doctor, I'd like to write a book." For some reason, that's socially acceptable. Although everyone would realize that it's ridiculous to say the opposite. "When I retire from writing, I'm going to be a doctor."

    1. Excellent point, Jenny! I think when I retire from being a writer, I'm going to be a professional baseball player.:)