How a Kennedy can help you find your writing talent

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Today’s column  focuses on the subject of writing talent. Many of us consider “talent” to fall into the same general category as “luck” or a “gift.” Continue reading to learn why that’s a bad idea!

I must confess, I both admire and dislike the American Kennedy family. On the negative side, they express a raging sense of entitlement and have a steely determination to win, no matter what the cost. But on the positive side, they work amazingly hard, display incredible charisma and have breath-taking determination.

Perhaps my ambivalent feelings explain why I so enjoyed Gretchen Rubin’s marvelous biography 40 Ways to Look at JFK. It’s a fascinating book that tries to escape the problems inherent to biography, by presenting both admiring views and critical ones. It also takes a quirky, non-chronological approach to the former president. Sample chapter titles range from “Kennedy the fox” to “Kennedy’s mystique.” (If you’re interested, you can watch an eight-minute Youtube video of Gretchen speaking about the philosophy behind her approach.)

A few days after finishing this book, I was surprised to learn (via Twitter) that JFK’s younger sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, had died on August 11. The fifth in the Kennedy clan of nine, she is most famous as the founder of the Special Olympics.

I’m not a sports fan, so have never really much followed the Olympics — either special or non — but Shriver’s death caused TV and radio to rebroadcast portions of many of her speeches. And all I can say is Wow! That woman could speak and her passion for people with intellectual disabilities — delivered in her trademark Massachusetts accent — was both fierce and riveting.

One comment, in particular, caught my ear. In one speech she made the passing remark: “If you don’t have a family, well, go out and find yourself one.” I love that sentiment and in fact it made me think of my own mother — who had a large family (I’m the eldest of her five kids) but who persisted in rounding up lonely or unconnected people and bringing them into our family’s life.

The belief that my mother and Shriver shared was: You should not be limited by what you are born with.

I think this message applies to writing as well. As a journalist and now a newsletter producer, I’ve frequently had people tell me that I’m “such a talented writer.” Frankly, nothing strikes me as a crazier sentiment. True, I was born good at some things — I’m a natural editor, I cope well with stress and I’m an excellent cook — but when it comes to writing, I have very little natural talent.

Nope — don’t argue with me. I’m not waving a flag of false modesty and saying I’m no good at the job. I’m just saying the talent wasn’t born in me. Like the child with no siblings, I arrived on this earth without. So I had to learn how to do it.

The good news about writing is that it’s very learnable. Some things, I think, require a plethora of natural talent — music, engineering and teaching spring to mind. But writing — nah, that’s easy. It’s just putting words on paper.

The main reason it seems tough is that few of us were lucky enough to have anyone teach us how to write in school. Teachers tended to ignore the topic or, worse, taught us to be scared of writing by filling our papers with little red marks highlighting the bad stuff — spelling and grammar mistakes. I would never have learned except for the tricks I picked up as a journalist and, later, my own crushing need to write faster when I became self-employed.

Whatever you do, don’t get yourself caught on the “talent” bandwagon. Writing is something that can be learned. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Pay a little attention and you can get really good at it.

If you need extra help then get yourself a book — mine or someone else’s — and start learning some of the easy-to-pick-up techniques. If you’re determined, you will be able to do it.

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