I looooove Sarah Andersen’s comics. They’re one of the only reasons I check Twitter, because I’m clearly not going to get over my social anxiety and talk to someone.
This gem came out over the holidays. Let’s talk about it!
Practice! Practice. Practice. I want to keep its URL in an easy-to-reach place and paste it into every “I’m new to writing, and I don’t know how to…” post. I want to smoosh it into the face of every person who claims “I’m just not good at [thing]!”
This comic speaks to me. Now I will speak to you. About the comic. And creativity. And practice!
The Myth of Innate Artistic Talent
Let’s talk about drawing for a little while. This problem exists in the writing world, too–and I’ll talk about that in a second–but it’s more obvious with art.
Here’s the myth: many people believe that creativity is an innate part of your being. It’s not something you learned–it’s who you are. You don’t have to study or practice it. You have nothing to learn. You were born with a natural talent for art, and this makes you better at it than other people.
Before we go farther, check out the comments on the above comic. People vehemently disagree with this comic. Let me paraphrase some of those comments. (These’ obviously are not quotes.)
“This isn’t true!” they argue. “I could practice every day and never draw well.”
“It’s definitely not all practice. I can barely draw stick figures. So obviously, I could never get better, even if I tried.”
“But two people can practice the same amount and one will get better faster. Obviously some people will just never be good.”
“It’s all practice,” an artist who has put in a lot of hard work and practice says, and people fight it! I think this is fascinating. Americans have a complicated, weird perspective on work ethic. This is a culture that believes anyone can become better if they try harder. It’s a culture that says that everything you get in life is a result of your own personal choices, and that if you really want something, you should work harder for it.
Unless it has to do with talent.
Then we give up. Talent! No, you’re born with that. You either fall out of the womb with a preternatural talent for art or you will never, ever, ever be good at it. In fact, if you have to work hard at being creative, you should be ashamed of yourself. You are bad, you will never be good, and you should just accept it and find something else to do in life. You are making a fool of yourself. What are you doing? Don’t you have eyes? If you were meant to do this, you’d already be good at it.
Some people really believe this. They deeply, fiercely believe this. And when someone struggles, this is the first thing they club themselves with: you must not really be an artist if you didn’t figure all of these out yourself.
But you know what? This is nonsense.
You could learn how to draw. Yes, you. Even if you can only draw stick figures. If you took lessons, practiced every day, and put in hundreds of hours of practice, you would get better. You could, if you tried hard enough, even get good at it.
Don’t believe me? Check out this Reddit post. That person wasn’t blessed by a fairy at birth. That’s practice. And heck, even in the comments, you’ve got the same argument going on: artists who have put in the time to learn these techniques saying that it’s all hard work and learning the right technique, while complaining that everyone blames it on “innate talent.”
How this all applies to writing
The same assumptions happen in the writing world, although they take more time to play out. You can look at a piece of art and see that someone’s talented in a few seconds, but it’s much harder to objectively label a book as “good.”
But everything I mentioned above? The complicated feelings? The “I’m not good at this now, so I am completely incapable of ever getting better” thing? That happens in writing, too. It happens all the time.
People think writing is an innate gift, too. They think that you either have a talent for ideas, worlds, and words or you don’t. They assume that if you’re “meant to be” a writer, you’ll effortlessly write publication-ready, agent-worthy pieces, and vault right over that awkward “no agents will even respond to me” phase.
And people absolutely maul themselves over this.
“I’m not good at coming up with new ideas for stories, so I obviously have no ideas and am not creative. I can never learn these skills or practice them, so I guess I’m not an author.” Yeah. I’ve seen posts like that. Heck, I literally argued with someone who said, “if the first book I write isn’t agent-worthy, I’m never going to write again–it’s not worth practicing writing unless I know I’m good at it.”
Good golly! So let me get this straight: you’ll consider practicing after you become a professional? It doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that!
Your favorite authors did not spend their lives not writing. They did not go from “never writing a single word for fun” to “writing a masterpiece.” They’ve probably written for years. They probably produced a lot of junk before they started producing professional work. They might have a natural gift for wordplay or clever ideas or realistic dialogue, but they still had to hone that talent into something useful, and they probably produced a lot of awkward garbage while they were figuring it out.
It’s practice! Practice. Practice!
It’s all about practice!
Does talent exist? Maybe. Something probably separates the grand masters from people who are just really, really good at something. But having a natural talent for something doesn’t mean you’ll never have to work at it at all. That’s just a fixed mindset.
We should definitely stop thinking “if I’m not good now, I’ll never be good.” You don’t know how good you’ll get if you put more time and energy into it. How good you are now is no indication of how good you could be.
Art is not an innate part of your being. It’s something you learn over time by practicing and doing. And if you aren’t where you want to be right now, that’s okay–just keep practicing. Just keep doing. Just keep learning.
It’s practice! Practice. Practice.