Because screenwriting is such a competitive field, and a “tournament profession,” where there are a very limited number of paid jobs compared to the vast numbers of people who want to be doing it for a living — and a system designed to keep most of them “out” until they can demonstrate the sellability of their work — it’s easy to get caught up in thinking of it in terms of “haves” and “have nots”: that there are the elite who are “talented” and thus successful, and then there’s… everybody else.
I like what Akiva Goldsman said at a rally during the Writers Srike. He’s probably one of the most successful screenwriters in the business. Throughout his life, he said, people kept telling him to “stop” — that he didn’t have what it took to make it as a writer. The secret of his success? He never stopped. (Until the day the strike was called — and only until it was over.)
There’s much wisdom to that simple statement. The truth is, none of us are born “talented.” And all of our early scripts (and early drafts of our current scripts, even) are not “good,” in the sense that others would read them and want to buy them. In my view, “talent” (i.e. that “thing” some people have that allows them to succeed) is almost entirely about attitude, and not native ability. And here’s what that winning attitude looks like:
- You have a great passion for doing this that feels like a calling. You continue to have a desire to do it that doesn’t easily go away, and is about more than just superficial lust for notoriety (although that might be present, too). Somewhere deep inside, you sense the rightness of this pursuit, for you. You feel you have something to contribute to the world through this undertaking, and you want to contribute it.
- You are willing to follow your instincts about your ideas, to trust and nurture them in a positive, believing, optimistic way. (This may take a lot of work on a day-to-day basis when one tends to get discouraged, but it’s work you’re willing to show up to do.)
- You are open to others’ feedback in a healthy way, meaning you understand your growth at becoming “sellable” involves continuing to improve how your work impacts others — and that the path of being a writer involves continuously writing and rewriting, and finding a way to enjoy that process.
“Whether you have talent” is really not the big issue. It’s all about what you DO with your DESIRE to write — in terms of your ongoing attitude and actions.
For all of us, on every project, there is a continuum of growth from writing something that nobody thinks shows “talent” (i.e. it doesn’t grab them as believable, compelling and fresh the way “successful” writing needs to), to writing something that others say does show “talent” — and proves you have it.
On my first professional writing gig, which was a script for an episode of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, I wrote many drafts that my colleagues, to be frank, didn’t think showed much, if any, talent. (But apparently I had some, based on other things I had written that got me the job.) They continued to give me notes, and I continued to work to address them. Eventually, I turned in a draft that, to me, was less than 10% different from the previous draft (and I’d lost count of the number of drafts at that point) — but to others, it pushed the script over the edge into something that worked. And suddenly their perception of my “talent” for this project increased greatly, and I was being asked to rewrite some of the other scripts. Did something change within me that made me suddenly have something I didn’t? No.
The difference between the perception and experience of “I don’t have talent” to “I do have talent” is not about your innate worthiness or ability to do this, but about your attitude and actions along the way as you strived to do better and better at what all of us writers are here to do — which is to communicate and engage others emotions.
Anyone can do that, in their own unique way, if they really choose to, and stick with it. So stop wondering if you really “have it” or not. Take that out of the equation. You have “it.” What makes you one of the “special” ones who “succeed” (in terms of making money at it) is about what you do with “it.”
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.