I remember clear as day the words that came from my fifth grade teacher’s mouth after he told me to write my first short story. The idea had never occurred to me before. I had been a storyteller since I could talk, but I thought I needed some special permission to write a book. Never did I think I would be allowed to do it. After he read my story, he said, “You have a talent, a gift. Never stop writing.”
My mother would listen to me read my stories, and she always said how good they were. She used that word, too, said I was talented. Every teacher who gave me a writing assignment used that word. I got it from every person who read a story I wrote. It was my birthright. I was a writer, and I knew God had given me a profession. I went to college and took a few writing courses. I wasn’t serious about it. I was already a writer—what could they teach me? For the most part, I didn’t learn anything. No one could tell me how to improve my work. I received no instruction. A college professor told me again that I was talented, and left it at that.
When I finished my first book, I sent it out to agents and received rejections over and over again. I had no idea what was happening. I walked around in a daze with confusion rattling in my head and boiling in my gut. I was supposed to be a legend by the time I was forty. I was supposed to rival the greatest writers in history. Why did they not see it? Everyone knew I had talent. God made me a writer. What was the deal? The litany of excuses began.
The first excuse my friends suggested was, the ever popular, “jealousy”. These agents were jealous of me. I needed to reach that one mystical agent my talent wouldn’t intimidate. I just needed to find the right one. It would take time. I would have to receive 20 rejections at least. I’d heard Golding had received 20 rejections for Lord of the Flies before being published. My masterpiece just needed to reach the right ear. “They don’t like fantasy,” was next. The Lord of the Rings movies had just come out. People had had enough of fantasy. It was flooding the market, and no one would pick up more at the time. I would just wait until the audience came back. Then I would be huge. Everyone I talked to handed me excuses like this. They didn’t understand it either. I was talented. Why didn’t I succeed?
The truth is, agents do want good work. They are looking for it. They actively seek out good work. When Donald Maass taught his workshop on Writing the Break Out Novel, he told us all to send him our manuscripts when we were done. “Tell me a good story,” he said. It occurred to me this man wasn’t jealous of anyone. He wanted to represent genius writers, wanted to find the best of the best. It was a business to him, not a jealous effort to keep the best out for personal reasons. Good fantasy will always sell because there are plenty of fantasy readers. No matter how flooded the market becomes, the best will still rise. Throw a great book in a slush pile of trash and it will float to the top. Once I realized this, crisis came.
If good books sell, if agents are not jealous, then why hadn’t I sold? I had one answer, one crippling realization. I hadn’t written a good enough book yet. About a month after that realization came to me, I grabbed hold of this one nugget of truth: talent will get you nowhere.
God-given talent is nothing but a guiding hand. “This is your avenue,” He is telling you. “This is what you were born for,” He is saying. But He won’t give it to you. Some of the most talented football players in the world are selling cars. They were legends in their home towns for how they played in high school, but they aren’t pros. The ones who make it, the ones we watch knocking the hell out of each other on Sundays, are those who used their talent and then worked.
They worked to hone their bodies. They worked to hone their minds and their reflexes. They worked day in and day out to get their shot, and their work paid off. They didn’t get lucky. They weren’t in the right place at the right time. They worked their asses off. And that is the truth of it. Talent will get you nowhere unless you are willing to put in the work. Unless you are ready to chop away at it day in and day out, unless you are willing to drag yourself to the computer when you are tired and strung out from life, to force yourself to write, you will never be a successful writer. Day in and day out. Over and over and over again. Writing or painting or speaking or teaching, running the court bouncing a basketball, or molding a lump of clay over and over again, if you’re not willing to work your ass off, then you need to get out of the way. Talent is worthless without a willingness to bury yourself in it over and over again.
Since I came to this realization I have been writing nearly every day. I have taken my talent and wielded it as a pick hammer chipping away at the stone. I have written over 1.7 million words since that day. It is my life. It is all I am good at, and I can almost say I am ready.
In order to be a professional in this day, in this world, you can’t lean on talent. That’s not why God gives it to you.