Talent and Identity Politics

Natural vs. Acquired

One of the more ethically ambiguous topics of discussion in the MFA program was centered on talent, both natural and acquired, and how much identity played a role in shaping conceptions of talent. The workshop shed a light on how we might utilize the concept of talent more deliberately through tools of direct feedback, measurements of intention, or through an examination of perceived impact (how you see your work affecting readers) vs. received impact (the reader’s statement about your work). I will dive deeper into perceived vs. received impact in a later blog post, but for now let’s focus in on talent.

Talent might be understood as one’s natural or developed aptitude for any given skill, but measurements of talent are unfortunately quite nebulous. In terms of literature, talent is largely measured by success in publication and extent of reach or recognition. Often these measurements spiral the conversation out of control because no consensus truly exists over definitions of success either.

On the same token, judgments about talent are not entirely subjective. Agreements are often had over who or what talent looks like and these reactions can be useful or damaging for the artist/author, depending on how prepared we are to digest that feedback. Saying that talent can be defined exclusively in the eye of the beholder feels disingenuous and dismissive of human interconnectivity. This I see as a dead end road and thereby take a hard-line approach to the concept of talent that divorces it entirely from the concept of success and taste.

Think of it this way: Someone who is incredibly talented may or may not be successful, while someone who is successful may or may not be that talented. Talent, either way, is more useful as a concept when framed as something attainable, not something God-given (for an articulation of this misconception, read this article from Gallup). The miscommunications over talent are born out of the collision of these opposing definitions, the natural vs. the acquired views of talent.

The collision is such that, to lack talent in the natural view is to feel slighted by God. But to lack talent in the acquired view is to feel that there is hope, that with work and discipline you can acquire the talent(s) you desire. I argue that a consensus needs to be reached over this dilemma if MFA programs ever want to have useful conversations about talent writ-large, the pursuit of talent through honed skills, and the recognition that natural or genetic ability is only a contributing factor existent outside the author’s realm of control, that is, qualities to be built upon that should not constrict artistic fortitude in any individual.

We should look to refine the natural and developing aptitude for the craft of writing by engaging authors’ existing skills. While we should not ignore the ability one brings to the table based on culture or identity, we also should not value natural abilities more favorably than those that could potentially be acquired. One benefit of adopting talent as an area of ethical concern to be discussed in the MFA program is that it would inspire a basic level of camaraderie. Talent becomes a shared goal wherein refining skills is paramount, as opposed to a competitive race toward publication, agent acquisition, etc., where stymied collaboration results from writers protecting their creative insights over fear that someone might steal a great idea.

The Crossroads of Talent and Intent

Stepping back, it’s important to think about why we might want to come to this consensus on talent, at least within the context of the MFA workshop. For starters, it avoids measuring talent based on tribalism, group-think and identity or politically driven dynamics. Framing talent as a natural gift triggers questions of why certain people are “blessed” while others are not, in turn leading people to attribute talent to naturally or culturally inherited qualities such as race, gender, or class. From there, groups ascribe talent based on group concerns and lay claim to their version of talent as defined through that unique cultural perspective; divisiveness ensues. This risks promoting art founded on immoral considerations of its merit.

This siloing effect mirrors that of the digital and political landscape in the run-up and aftermath of the 2016 election and should be avoided at all costs. Especially when we are having discussions about creativity and artistic expression, and even more so in an arena where diverse expressions of the self hinge on nuance, context, and specificity. As much as your group supports you, you should want to be recognized by the quality and impact of your writing, not by your ascriptive group identity.

A truly objective and useful assessment of talent at any scale ought to ignore political and social biases and attempt to transcend toward a more human understanding of talent as seen in the immediate interchange of ideas during any creative feedback encounter*. In an effort to converse within a paradigm where political or social biases will not undermine objectivity, the understanding of talent must not consider identity politics as a viable determining factor. I seek to develop a study on talent that will reveal the need for ethics-focused curriculum within creative-feedback focused programs such as MFA workshops and academic writing centers.

In my view, this can be done by developing a discussion about talent as it relates to intention, meaning that intentions and talent are intricately intertwined and can be useful in understanding the relationship between writer and reader. If a writer has good intentions but lacks talent, they aren’t SOL. Rather, they need guidance, tools, and support in order to acquire that talent. Good intentions made in good faith are indicative of potential talent. For example, someone may strive to more accurately represent their character’s experience based on workshop feedback and goes about it by heeding the advice of her classmates, researching and exploring alternative points-of-view, dialects, literature from other cultures outside her wheelhouse, etc. If her intentions become clearer on the page from draft to draft through this research, and this is framed as growing or acquiring talent, she will see that talent is not only achievable, but a reward for those efforts that comes with applicable skills.

Framing talent in the acquired view levels the playing field and could open up a more streamlined conversation about issues of bias within the publishing industry, another major area where the MFA program needs to step up its game.

All in all, to know that you are in control of your talent is liberating, and we should aim to equip writers with that confidence by establishing a study of talent within a formalized Philosophy of Fiction.


*By creative feedback encounter, I mean any situation such as the workshop or one-on-one academic tutorial session, wherein a reader responds directly to the creation of a writer.

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