Everyone Has Talent

Natasha Sajé - Salt Lake City, Utah
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, April 13, 2015
Natasha Sajé
Photos by David Baddley

When Natasha Sajé was a young college student, she asked a poetry professor if she had any talent. He kindly told her no; however, she was not dissuaded. After attending other poetry workshops and writing groups, Ms. Sajé has come to believe that everyone has talent—and everyone should pursue their passions.

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In my first college poetry class we were supposed to write in meter based on model poems by Yeats and Pound. My efforts frustrated both me and the professor. I recall one poem about the whooshing sounds of cars in rain.

After the last session, I picked up my work at the professor’s office and asked, my knees shaking, “Do I have any talent?”

He was a kind person. He pushed his scraggly hair behind his ears as if he were thinking. I’d earned a B- even though I did every assignment and missed no classes. “Probably not,” he said softly, looking down.

“Thank you,” I said, and walked back to my dorm. I felt like a grafted apple tree: part of me dejected, another part defiant and disbelieving.

The defiant part led me to another poetry workshop the following year. This time, students drove the discussion and we read contemporary poems. I earned an “A.” Many years later, the professor told me that every student who did the work earned an A. His approach was as encouraging as the first instructor’s was discouraging, but from that discouragement, I learned that teachers don’t hold the keys to their students’ talent.

I believe that every human being is born with talent for making art: visual, literary, kinesthetic, or musical. Some lucky souls are born with multiple talents. And people gravitate toward subjects they have a gift for, so nearly everyone in a writing workshop has writing talent.

But no one—not even the writer—can predict if or when talent might bloom into art that others recognize as good. Some people bloom early, others late, some not at all. In the latter category are those whose economic circumstances permit no leisure and no materials for art. Instead of painting canvases, Alice Walker’s mother created gardens.

Artists must have enough ego to make art and enough humility to improve it. They must be open to change. They must be their own toughest critics, and be able to absorb the criticism they need to improve. Yet they must also be sustained by their own joy in making. That quality—call it grit—got me through many years of writing poems without recognition and despite discouragement.

My aunt said, “Why write if you’re not getting published?” Having editors who don’t know you publish your work is one kind of success. In my late thirties, I learned—with the help of a critique group—to write past clichés, and I also found editors happy to publish my poems. Just as important, I trusted my pleasure in making them.

I’ve been teaching creative writing for more than 30 years now. Students sometimes ask me, “Do I have talent?” I tell them my story, and I quote Joyce Carol Oates, “There is only the work.” And then I say, “Of course you have talent, but you must not need praise.” I say, “Make art regardless of whether anyone approves—or even notices.”

Natasha Sajé is the author of three books of poems, most recently Vivarium (Tupelo Press, 2014); a critical book about poetry (Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory, U Michigan P, 2014); and many essays. She teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and in the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program. She may be reached at www.natashasaje.com.