One of my favorite things about teaching writing is being able to say to another writer, “You’re good at this. Did you know it?” Sometimes it’s obvious to me that a writer has an ear for dialogue, say, or a gift for sensory description, but it’s not obvious to the writer.
In writing, as in other areas of human endeavor, it is important to know what you’re good at and to build out from there. It’s natural enough to want to shore up your weaknesses. But it’s even more important to shore up your strengths.
I once had a student who described a hospital room as smelling like ham and band-aids. I thought that was just about perfect. There were several equally evocative bits of sensory images in the same short piece. My student seemed surprised that I was so excited about those images; she had no idea she was a natural at sensory images. She expected our conversation to focus on the fact that her dialogue wasn’t great. The dialogue wasn’t great, and we talked about that, but mostly we talked about the things she was doing well—the things that could be the basis of a distinct (and honest) voice.
Your gifts and talents are gifts to you, but more importantly they are gifts to the wider world. I have written before about the idea of thinking about your work in terms of a territory—a patch of ground that is yours to cultivate—rather than thinking in terms of your place in a hierarchy. How do you know what your “territory” is? One clue is knowing what you’re good at, what comes naturally to you.
Writers who come to me for help often think of themselves as needing help fixing what’s wrong with their writing. I completely get that. I want to fix my shortcomings too, and I think (I hope) I’ve made some progress in that regard. Even so, I hope you’ll remember this truth: you are defined by your strengths, your gifts, your talents, not by your weaknesses. This is all related to a formulation I call The Fondue Pot Principle, which can be stated as a theorem with corollaries:
Theorem: You can only give what you have—but that’s just fine.
Corollary A: When what you have to give matches up with what people need, those people feel delight, appreciation, and other good feelings.
Corollary B: With very few exceptions, people are not disappointed or angry or upset when what you have to give doesn’t match up with what they need. In fact, with very few exceptions, people have no opinion at all regarding your shortcomings.
If you’re like me, you spend a lot of energy thinking about your shortcomings. I hope it’s a relief to know that the rest of the world isn’t as interested in your shortcomings as you are. Your talents, your strengths—those are much more interesting.