When I was young, I was talented. It nearly finished me.
From a very young age I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved reading, loved storytelling, loved worldbuilding. I churned out awful stories with plots stolen from trash fantasy novels in notebooks and on borrowed computers.
One high school English teacher gave me 15/15 for a script I wrote called ‘Shaft Vs The Vampires’. In Year 12, Jack Lloyd and I were invited to write the script for the school’s annual Fashion Revue. In retrospect that’s more confusing than flattering (what is a fashion revue and why does it need a script?) but at the time, these felt like important milestones.
Adults seemed to think I was capable of being a real writer one day. I assumed they were right. Why would they lie?
I probably did have some fluency, a sense of style. I liked writing, I wrote every day I could. As a 15 year old, maybe that’s enough to make you stand out.
What I didn’t know, what took me a long time to learn, is this: If you want to be a writer, talent is the tiniest part of the picture.
Talent is nothing compared with craft – and no-one is gifted with craft.
Craft is the ability to juggle ideas on the page. To express yourself quickly and flexibly through the smallest units of your form (sentences, lines of dialogue), assemble them into larger pieces (paragraphs, scenes) and then zoom right out to the bigger picture (plays, books, essays). To shift rapidly between generative and critical modes, so you can produce work easily and edit it intelligently. If you want to do something worthwhile in your work, you need all of that.
Writing craft is gained through hard labour and learning. It’s a kind of mental labour that’s actually quite similar to the muscle strain of physical exertion. It involves sitting staring at a word document for hours, in a kind of boring, painful struggle.
When you’re really working, your brain literally tries to flee the work (by changing the browser tab, cleaning the house, anything) and you have to force yourself back to it. It’s not being in a flow state – those only come when you’re doing something you already know how to do. Developing craft is about improving – setting yourself concrete, tangible goals, and then struggling towards them.
To develop craft – any kind of craft – you need two things:
2. The ability to learn.
I didn’t have either of these things. Not that I thought I knew everything – but being ‘talented’, I thought I could learn on the job. If there was something I couldn’t do, some technique or skill I didn’t possess, then rather than look for a teacher to help me learn it, I invented workarounds so I didn’t need to rely on it.
It took me a long time to learn how to learn.
Meanwhile, my peers were just rolling up their sleeves and getting on with getting better at writing. Maybe they weren’t as talented as me – or (spoiler alert) they were exactly as talented, but they hadn’t let it get in their way. They had the humility to learn, and the discipline to work at it, and very quickly they started improving. They locked in gains, kept ratcheting up, showed up with new exciting works and finished them.
Not that I was lazy, per se. Over my twenties I generated huge amounts of writing, volumes upon volumes of scripts. But all this wild, undisciplined effort wasn’t focused on making me a better writer – and so I plateaued. For a long time, I was producing work but not improving – and if you’re not improving, you get left behind.
In certain cases, for one person in a hundred thousand, talent is enough. If you’ve lived a particularly unique life, if you have an important perspective that the world is hungry for, then you don’t need a heap of craft. If your story matters people will find their way to it, never mind the rough edges.
For the rest of us, talent is a con. It’s valuable only if it helps gets you in the room with experts and professionals, because they will help you develop craft. That’s all it’s good for.
It finally dawned on me, slowly but surely, that I’d been treading water for a long time. Maybe I had some talent when I was young, but that didn’t count for anything, and besides, it was long over. That was a dispiriting realisation.
What saved me is that writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and I knew that nothing else would ever make me happy. So I had to begin, far too late, to learn how to learn.
I don’t know exactly what I’d say to a young artist whose work excited me in place of ‘you’re talented’, but maybe it’d be something like: ‘You have something in you worth working on.’ That’s what I needed to hear, anyway.
On the news / life front, I’m currently in Munich for a few weeks, joining Rebecca while she finishes up her residency at the Rachel Carson Center. I’ve come off the back of a busy few weeks for Coney, contributing to the company’s show at the Natural History Museum at the end of this month (as part of the NERC Impact Award Lates on Friday 30 November – go check it out if you’re in London).
I’ll be (briefly) back in Australia at the beginning of the year, before heading to Singapore over Jan-Feb with Boho for the last phase of our collaboration with Earth Observatory Singapore, creating a set of new games around volcano and typhoon hazards for the Science Centre Singapore.
And then, who knows? 2019 is a bit of a mystery at this stage. Get in touch if you know what I should be doing.
That pic of me at the top from 2004, btw, I think was taken by Nickamc.