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Can anyone who makes the required effort become a “great writer� I don’t think so.

Ronald T.

I read a thread from March, 2013, in which quite a number of our members were unwilling to acknowledge the concept of “inborn talent”.

I have to disagree wholeheartedly with those who deny that "innate talent" exists.

Almost my entire life I have been both a graphic and sculptural artist. From the age of seven or eight, that was my never-ending dream. I have worked in many graphic mediums, including pencil drawings, watercolors, oils, as well as in 3-D art, such as stone and woodcarving, and in oil-clay for sculpting maquettes for use in producing bronze sculpture. I have sold my graphic and sculptural art for forty years -- some of it to long-time art collectors -- and have twice won the highest award for woodcarving at the California Woodcarver's "Best-of-the-best" show in Cambria, CA.

Now, I mention these things for a reason. Art has always come easily for me. That doesn't mean I haven't worked hard at it. I have. I am self-taught and I've spent months on end without a day off trying to improve my skill level. For me, that effort paid off.

But here's the point.

I've known many woodcarvers who have spent even more time than I have at trying to become proficient carvers, yet they still carve at what I consider a beginner's level. I can tell they would give their left arm to reach a level that might be thought of as advanced, and yet they fail. This is after thirty or more years of taking every carving class that comes along. For some reason, they are simply unable to improve. The same can be said of the students I shared classes with in high-school and college. Those students longed to be good artists, yet they never produced anything that a professional might call adequate. It wasn't because they didn't want to improve, because they did. Yet they simply lacked a particular element that would make that goal possible: an innate talent.

Does anyone truly believe that being an opera star is possible merely through study and practice? I'm sorry my friends, it isn't. Nor is it possible to become an exceptional artist simply because one is willing to do the hard work and put in the time. If you don't have an intrinsic gift in these areas to begin with, it's not going to happen. The same is true with the art and craft of writing. One can study and practice, and they are likely to improve. But they are very unlikely to become a great, or even what is considered a very good writer. The gift of talent in any field is a quintessential part of rising above what one might consider merely 'adequate". It's heartbreaking, but true.

I am what many would call a novice writer. I have been a devout reader and a rabid student of writing for nearly forty years. However, I have been writing seriously for only eleven years. So, whether I have even the slightest gift for writing has yet to be seen. I will continue to work my ass off in an attempt to become a "great" or even a "talented" writer. But I'm not foolish enough to believe I will ever reach such lofty levels. I will likely have to settle for "adequate". However, that won't stop me from chasing the dream.

Most of us will have to settle for that non-lofty description. Yet, in the field of writing, even "adequate" is far above the norm.

So, all I can say is -- keep writing. If we’re fortunate, someday people might speak of us as talented writers. I believe that for most of us…this distinction is the dream.

Of course, I could be wrong. I think I can remember I was, "once".

As always, my best to all of you.

--The hermit in the woods--
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Myth Weaver
I will agree, and disagree... in part because greatness would need defined.

Writing is a horse of many colors. I think there are several "arts" wrapped in one, or perhaps several skills to make the single art. A person can be natural at one part of writing, and not another. There is technical skill, story-teller skill, and creativity... and creativity/story-telling could both be sub-categorized.

You don't have to be a natural at all three to achieve greatness...

A comparison might be Liberace. I always heard he was technically gifted, but lacked the emotional oomph to propel him to the stratosphere, but still, a great pianist. As someone with no ear for music, that's how he came off to me.

Of course greatness needs defined, so subjective. I will not attribute greatness to sales, never have, never will. Really questionable writers can achieve success with a story that strikes a certain chord despite being technically horrid and not particularly creative.

I believe anyone who achieves greatness has/had natural ability, whether they want to recognize it or not, and no matter how hard they had to work. And lots of people would eschew the term natural because they feel it belittles their hard work. I've been told I'm a natural writer since I was a little kid, whatever that's worth, but not until recently have I really gone after the technical side.

And success does not require greatness. Success would be a low bar for that definition.


toujours gai, archie
All art is self-expression. So, if you have to write, then write. If you can manage not to write, then do so, for you are not a writer.

Whether what you produce is popular is another question entirely, one not entirely dependent upon either diligence or talent.

Whether what you produce is regarded as brilliant by critics (or by future generations) is yet another question entirely.

To put it more briefly, talent or hard work? It's a non-issue, unanswerable.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
There's a quote somewhere, and some day I'll have the patience to look it up, but roughly:

What you're born with isn't ability, but taste.

That is, you make something, and you see all it's errors, so the next time you try and improve. Your technique improves over time, but it's that taste which says, "Really? That's not good enough." That's what helps you do better.

So in my opinion, the question is "Can good taste be taught?" I think it can, if you approach it from the right perspective. But instead we get caught up on skill and technique, and we don't have much of a framework for building up taste.

Legendary Sidekick

The HAM'ster
Well, here's the thing...

Crappy writing skills + Uncanny business sense = $$$$$

...of course, you're more likely to succeed with true talent and the willingness to learn the business end. But my point is that adjectives like "good", "crappy" and "talented" are all subjective terms. Money is tangible. How much you make is not a measurement of the quality of your writing, but your ability to monetize your talent.

Point being, if you think your writing can entertain, write. If audience reactions suggest, yes, your writing does entertain, learn to make money from your talent.

If you think you're not good enough, so why try... "Nothing ventured; nothing gained."
Even writers who have great talent with one type of writing might be only mediocre at another. For example, the great novelist who can churn out only mediocre poetry; or, the other way around.

Personally, I think Nietzsche was a great essayist (even without being able to read the original German, which I've been told is even better), but the poetry he wrote was certainly not on par.

I'll bet many similar examples can be given. Does this mean that the great novelist has more natural talent writing/thinking in terms of that medium than he does in terms of the poetic medium? Perhaps. I do believe that natural talent—a serendipitous intersection of various natural abilities, since writing fiction requires multiple abilities—can play a major role in helping a writer to achieve greatness. At least, greatness (however defined) might come more quickly.

But on the other hand, fiction is not so complex a thing. All humans are natural storytellers, in my opinion. A significant step can be taken by investing time in learning the art.

Art. early 13c., "skill as a result of learning or practice," from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) "work of art; practical skill; a business, craft"...

I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that the primary difference between the great writer and everyone else was not that the writer had better ideas, but only that he had the means to put them into writing. What is the natural, in-born "talent", most important to writing? It may be something entirely separate from the tools of art. For instance, the ability to read people or to look at events over a lifetime and remember all the facets of those events. Or, as the poet W.H.Auden said, to have this vast library of one's own, arranged in a particular, peculiar manner (peculiar to the writer) —a reservoir from which to draw the necessary water.

But then again, a love of language, in all its beauty and logic, can't hurt. Is this something that only some people have? Is it nature or nurture? Both?
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Legendary Sidekick

The HAM'ster
I can say with certainty that it's both, and absolute certainty on the "nurture" part.

I'll use art rather than writing as evidence, since it's easier to see artistic improvements at a glance. I've drawn pretty much my whole life, but made little progress from the age of 20 to the age of 40. Why? I drew a lot, and even made art for my own wedding invitation... but I did little to hone my art skills. In the past year, and especially in the past few months, I've made significant improvement. Why? (1) I bought a book by Christopher Hart, unlearned some bad habits, and experimented until I found a style that's ME! (2) I've been drawing every day since summer 2015.

(3) is so important it gets its own paragraph. I was inspired by Raul Gonzalez III. He considers his art "accessible", by which he means "anybody can do what I do." That's the attitude I wish more writers had. Not, published authors are so awesome, we aspiring peons do not deserve to sniff the same oxygen of They the Gods of Language and Worldbuilding.

You don't know if you have natural talent if you don't attempt to use it. If you don't nurture your talent, it will die.


Article Team
I am preoccupied with being a good writer. I read everything, but lately I have been studying craft books like crazy. Actually, for about the past 6 months I stopped reading as much fiction and starting really studying craft. I have been attending workshops, taking courses, joining groups, critiquing for other people (you learn so much just by teaching others). It is amazing how simple tricks can make a huge difference. It is amazing how much structure really makes a difference. I don't think self improvement is dangerous, I think it is necessary.

As far as the op... Hmmmmmm.... Can of worms. Was Wayne Gretsky more talented than other hockey players? I think yes. I think some people are just designed for certain things... But you have to have the passion for it too... To keep going when it gets hard (because it will get hard). I'm working with someone right now who inspires the hell out of me. She just keeps plugging away at making her story better no matter what. No matter how much work is required she is motivated to keep making it better. To make it the best possible piece she can. She takes all suggestions, even stuff she is not comfortable with or is not her "usual" way of doing things. She is so open to learning, I am in awe of her. I think that sort of passion will eventually get someone somewhere.


toujours gai, archie
Or, to go all the way back to Robert Pirsig: what is quality?

Careful of that one. Trying to answer it can drive you crazy!
You don't know if you have natural talent if you don't attempt to use it. If you don't nurture your talent, it will die.

When you posted that, I had just been thinking that an untrained talent is almost as useless as a lack of talent.

I think the good news for us may be that training plays so important a role in the final output. The truly great greats are pretty much in a class by themselves anyway and are relatively few in number. Someone with much latent talent (untrained) could easily be surpassed by someone who has less talent but who has taken far more time to learn the art. I imagine that, throughout history, many people have come and gone who had much latent talent for writing but never took that time, maybe never even bothered to try writing fiction (lack of passion or interest in writing), or who never had access to the resources for learning how to write well.

Another tentative point relating to something I wrote in my previous comment:

Perhaps those abilities or skills important to writing fiction that are not directly related to the tools of the art can also be trained. For instance, if being able to look around, to observe people in action and events as they happen, and to remember these is a useful talent, we can train ourselves to be more observant and to remember what we see. And so forth.


I think the word "great" is hard to define but contains an element of elitism that means only a few people can achieve it no matter how hard they try.

So really I think the question answers itself, if "anyone" could become "great" than the word "great" would lose its meaning.

However I do think that many people can learn to be successful or competent writers.

I also think that learning one's craft is a key element to becoming a competent or successful writer.

Ronald T.

I thank you all for the thoughtful input. I feared this would be a topic with the potential to enflame the emotions of some people. And from these wildly varying responses, I can see that it certainly has.

Whether I agree with a response or not, I thank you all for participating.

But I find I failed to make certain aspects of this thread sufficiently clear. Perhaps I assumed too much. For that, I will take full responsibility.

The first thing I noticed was that some of you must believe that when I used the term, “great writer”, you thought I meant such writers are great in all genres. If that’s the impression I gave you, then this is the first mistake I made. I assumed you would all make the logical jump to what I actually meant, which was a reference to greatness in a particular genre. I doubt anyone is a great writer in all areas.

Second, it’s obvious that some of you associate “great writing” with financial success or the status of being on a “bestseller” list. However, I intended no such association. Great writing can be created in complete isolation. Financial reward and social kudos are not a requisite.

I also want to make the point that I don’t believe a writer can only be great if everyone thinks so. I would have to be a moron to suggest such a thing. (However, simply because I didn’t suggest that concept, it doesn’t mean I’m not a moron. That status is well within the realm of possibility.)

Many of you have addressed the issue of determined hard work and commitment…including passion. In this, I also assumed you took it for granted that I already feel all these issues are merely the basis for great writing. Without these and other necessary aspects and details that abound in the literary field, greatness cannot be achieved. They are the foundation on which greatness can be built.

However, as it is with all artist endeavors, writing included, some people have a gift, and some don’t. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve –- we certainly can -- but to what level?

Perhaps, in my reference suggesting “innate or natural talent”, I also should have included the term “natural capacity”. And I say this because many of us were not gifted with a set of vocal cords that would allow us be opera stars, nor, do all of us have the ability to see an object in a three-dimensional form and the ability to then recreate that image as a copy of something else, or from an original image in our mind.

As I mentioned in my original thread, I’ve seen people spend their entire adult lives trying to do just this, and never reaching a level I would call impressive or even adequate. And it’s not because they didn’t study or feel passionate about their work. They simply didn’t have the “capacity”, or “capability”, if you prefer. This is not meant as a put-down or condemnation of the person. It is simply the acceptance of fact.

If a person does something in an artistic field, including writing, and does so as a hobby, as therapy, or simply as a way to pass the time, then they should never be held to someone else’s standards. But if that same person wishes to be measured against others in their area of interest, then it seems strange that they are unwilling to accept that certain standards must be met. And it’s not unusual to accept that some people will have a natural gift for that particular skill-set. It’s only reasonable. But what do I know?

In regard to those of you who suggested that I shouldn’t limit my personal writing goals, I agree. I aim as high as I can. But I like to be realistic in those goals. Otherwise, I feel I’m dooming myself to unhappiness due to eventual failure.

And secondly, I have a fear of unmanaged personal ego. When I was a child, egotistical behavior was grounds for punishment. So, perhaps I tend to lean in the opposite direction a bit too much.

Now…back to the points of my original thread.

I would love to sing as well as Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli. But I know my vocal limitations, so I must be satisfied with what I ‘can’ do. I can sing for my own pleasure, I can sing for the pleasure of my family and friends. But no matter how hard I work, no matter how passionate I am about studying and practicing the art of singing, I will never reach Groban’s or Bocelli’s level of greatness.

And here is a very important point. That doesn’t mean I should give up singing or stop pushing myself to improve. It is merely my need to accept life as it is. Not everyone is capable of reaching the same levels of achievement. I don’t feel I am a failure because I can’t do something as well as someone else.

It is a simple fact of life.

My dad always told me, “There will always be someone who can do a better job than you can. But if you want to sleep at night, do the best ‘you’ can, whether you’re digging a ditch, sweeping a parking lot, or building a chicken house. If you do that, you can always be proud.”

Someone mentioned that people never say “now there goes a natural born electrician”, and I agree. I’ve been a licensed contractor for forty years, and I’ve wired my share of houses. But anyone who wishes to learn that skill can do so if they’re willing to learn the rules of electrical application. However, that is a field of exact and precise knowledge. Gain that particular knowledge and you’re in business.

The same can’t be said of art, in any form, and that includes the art and craft of writing. There’s nothing exact or precise about it. It’s often free-form expression, controlled primarily by artistic intent. It’s true there are certain guidelines and rules, but few of them are set in concrete.

I’ve also noticed that some people are simply unfamiliar with what the terms “innate talent” or “aptitude” really mean. However, that’s easily corrected by doing a bit of research.

All I can say is that I’ve spent a lifetime participating in various fields of art, writing included. And if I learned anything, it’s that “natural talent”, or “aptitude”, or “a natural born gift”, are real aspects of any artistic endeavor. I’ve seen it proven out too many times. But if anyone can show me empirical proof –- not personal opinion -- that I’m wrong, I will happily look at their evidence and adjust my thinking.

I’m sure I will have more to say on this issue down the road. But for now, this will have to do.

As always, my best to you all,

-- The hermit in the woods --
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I agree with you, Ron, and I have an addendum to what you said.

I think, like you, what I would call ‘greatness’ depends upon a blend of innate talent and hard work developing those skills. What I would add is that some people really seem to find a way to work with what they were born with.

I think examining musicians makes this a little easier to look at than examining writers. Take Bob Dylan, for example. If he had been dead-set on being an opera singer and put all his energy into that, there can be no question he would be languishing in obscurity today. He simply does not possess the necessary voice for it. Period. Instead, he figured out a way to make his vocal limitations work for him (no matter what you may think of him, I have a hard time picturing anyone describing him as having a naturally beautiful voice).

Anyway, I think that is a good way forward for any of us—instead of bemoaning that which we lack, we should be exploiting whatever it is we do have.
I read a thread from March, 2013, in which quite a number of our members were unwilling to acknowledge the concept of “inborn talent”.

I have to disagree wholeheartedly with those who deny that "innate talent" exists.

As with the thread you started on "voice," you begin with a broadside aimed at "quite a number" of the folks posting at M.S., with the apparent goal of edumacating the poor fools.

And your tone is generally didactic, at least in these two cases. Perhaps your apparent students are not paying attention to the lesson or mistake your purpose, so they (we) address the various issues you raise rather than address your opening salvo per se. Or maybe they've taken upon them the onerous task of speaking for themselves when they encounter another who has claimed the right to speak for them:

I will likely have to settle for "adequate". However, that won't stop me from chasing the dream.

Most of us will have to settle for that non-lofty description. Yet, in the field of writing, even "adequate" is far above the norm.

So, all I can say is -- keep writing. If we’re fortunate, someday people might speak of us as talented writers. I believe that for most of us…this distinction is the dream.

Quite frankly, I don't know what "they" are doing, but I can say that I, for one, have addressed some of the issues you raised (while wondering what, exactly, your purpose in starting this thread might have been. Not to address the issues?)

But I probably wasn't absolutely clear–uncertainty about the raison d'être for this thread influenced my comments. So, to this,

The first thing I noticed was that some of you must believe that when I used the term, “great writer”, you thought I meant such writers are great in all genres. If that’s the impression I gave you, then this is the first mistake I made. I assumed you would all make the logical jump to what I actually meant, which was a reference to greatness in a particular genre. I doubt anyone is a great writer in all areas.

which addresses my comments regarding great novelists being mediocre poets, and vice versa, I would say that my point was merely to raise questions about what "innate talent" or "intrinsic gift" references. Those are very vague ways of addressing...something. But what? You have written so broadly, the issues become muddled.

But if you want to talk about "greatness in a particular genre," then I'll be forced to ask whether a writer can be a great writer of mystery novels but absolutely suck at historical romances. A great writer of YA urban fantasy but only mediocre when writing an adult western. A great writer of children's books who can't write an adult epic fantasy worth scanning, let alone reading. And so forth. Where are the hairs split?

But for the sake of argument, given the existence of innate talents (and I do believe they exist), and given the possibility that one may have a talent in one particular genre while being mediocre in all others, and given the fact that so many genres and approaches exist.....then how can one make so wide a broadside targeting most of those who post to M.S.? You have only mentioned "writing" as an all-encompassing whole, and that most of us will have to settle for being merely adequate, which makes no distinction at all between genres. Which is precisely why I broached the subject of great novel writing vs great poetry writing: You didn't.

Beyond this simple quibble, the issues of a) talents/gifts and b) greatness are still utterly vague in your approach. And this helps out no one, other than perhaps to offer the sage wisdom, "Give up on ever being a great writer," or else the consolation, "Hey, we're all merely adequate; don't feel like you yourself are unusually bad."
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Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Stephen King said:
This, of course, is the killer. What is talent? I can hear someone shouting, and here we are, ready to get into a discussion right up there with “what is the meaning of life?” for weighty pronouncements and total uselessness.

I just saw this quote by Stephen King. He goes on to say that he's only concerned with the practical question of being published as a measurement of talent.

The source is here:

Stephen King’s “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutesâ€Â | Aerogramme Writers' StudioStephen King's "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes"

While I do find the discussion here interesting, in some regards I also feel this way. There are a lot of people with "great talent" that don't get a lot of readers. And a lot of people with "mediocre" talent who do.

To me, the question is ripe for arguments that aren't really grounded in anything substantial on all sides. Whether or not we're born with something or gain something may not matter much. The question we're all asking is, "How far can I get with my writing?" And that's a personal question with a lot more variables.

Legendary Sidekick

The HAM'ster
Realistic goals are good. That's why I mentioned Raul Gonzalez III as the most inspiring artist I've ever met. What inspired me was that he considered his art accessible—meaning he thought anyone could draw as well as he could. Once I realized he wasn't so far out of my league that I couldn't get to his level, I started noticing other things that I can do.

Check out the clouds when Mickey and Goofy start their walk [1:25-1:27].

It's a few strokes of a gray brush. In fact, a lot of the beautiful backgrounds are simple lines, hastily colored. Anyone who can draw can draw a background as well as these Disney artists. It takes an analysis of the technique, practice (and the right PhotoShop brushes)... and yes, talent at that level or just below.

I don't hone my talent by saying, "I'm gonna be the next Don Bluth!" I look at where I am, and I see where I want to be, and I aim for a step above where I am now, not miles above.

I don't see why writers can't do the same thing. Don't aim for JRRT or GRRM or JK Rowling or Stephen King or RA Salvatore. Find a self-published guy who's writing short stories and getting readers to buy his Kindle Shorts, and emulate him.

I don't think financial gain is a measure of greatness, but I think that's what you should aim for. To put it another way, people say Stephen King is great. If there's an undiscovered author who's just as great, no one will ever use him as an example of great. So don't aim for great. Aim for using your talent to make a respectable side income, or to earn a living if you're so fortunate.
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I'm more likely to agree with you.

A person can take many writing classes or whatever you would think would make them a great or better writer and still not quite cut it. Then you can have people who never take a class or read a book and can write 50 times better than the first student I mentioned above. Some people just do things naturally. No member of my family has ever shown any interest or gift in the arts but me. Most of my family are not even big readers. I noticed I had something good (not blowing my own horn here) in school when we learnt how to create and write a short-story for our G.C.S.E coursework. I'd never studied writing but everything the teacher showed us I all ready did naturally. What didn't come naturally to me and still doesn't is grammar and punctuation and spelling. Even in proof reading I miss really obvious mistakes. I'm not saying I have a talent for writing, just saying I found writing easy than all of my class mates. The same way my best friend just seemed naturally good at music. I'd always forget stuff but her - you could show her something once and she'd got it. I was the same with writing.

Some writers are good because of their editor, or the years they've practised and studied. Others through natural talent and ability.

Sadly I think getting published is mostly down to being marketable. Talent is like secondary or a bonus.


Sadly I think getting published is mostly down to being marketable. Talent is like secondary or a bonus.

I don't think that getting traditionally published is quite that simple, but if you believe that than you would simply say that published writers are talented at being marketable or producing marketable material.

Discussions like these tend to wander aimlessly because no sets and there is no agreement on the meaning of the term "greatness" or "being great in writing."

I do disagree with the OP in that I don't think aiming for adequate should be what drives a writer. I am all for humility, but that seems to take it a bit too far.

Legendary Sidekick

The HAM'ster
I don't completely disagree with the OP either. Of course some people are more talented than others.

I don't think aiming for adequate should be what drives a writer. I am all for humility, but that seems to take it a bit too far.
You nailed it, Russ. I take issue with the extremes, either you're great or you're not. Since you're not famous yet, it's obvious that you're not great, nor will you ever be no matter what effort you put in. It's a defeatist approach which leads to only one logical conclusion: give up.

A defeatist isn't a realist. A realist acknowledges strengths, limitations, marketability, what can be controlled, what can be learned, and what purpose his/her creative endeavor serves. If you acknowledge your limitations to the point that they define your full potential as "adequate," then you obviously have no confidence in your own creation and no desire to improve since you've deemed it impossible. What are your strengths? How can you apply them to make your work more than adequate?

To put it another way... say you have a white sash in kung fu. Do you say, "I'll never be like Bruce Lee," or do you take the steps to earn your yellow sash? If you keep going, you'll see that your classmates progress at different speeds. Do you only work your way toward black if you're among the faster students? Do you tell the slower ones they'll never get where you are no matter how they try? Do they thank you for that advice?
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Writing is a very different beast. We can attempt to draw parallels between sports, musical instruments, musical composition, but they will inevitably fall short. With sports, there are certain physical requirements that come about only by winning the genetic lottery. (See Cam Newton) With musical instruments, you need certain physical tools (I got stubby hands and as such can never play guitar as well as Hendrix) as well as a certain mindset. With composition, you need certain technical proficiency, but that can be learned, but you also need a certain ear, which comes about naturally. But writing, the knowledge, the skill, the ability can be better learned and developed because storytelling is something that comes naturally to all of us. We've told stories as long as we could talk (speaking individually and speaking of the entirety of the human race). Every time we relate a memory, an experience, or anything we tell a story. That is all we are doing. We are writing stories, often times longer than the stories we tell every day. This is something natural. Sure, some people are better at it than others, but that does not mean these other storytellers aren't great. Even still, the skills to become a great writer can be learned.

The ability to create compelling characters, arcs, plots, settings and everything else can be learned by anyone of reasonable intelligence. But, there is something to say that some people don't have the "heart" to become a writer. However, that notion is overstated. It is not that they don't have the heart it is that the specific story they are telling doesn't have the heart. Or that they don't have the heart to write in the genre they are currently in. However, if they search for their kind of story and put their heart in it, they will become great.

In short, the skills of writing can be learned. The heart of writing has to be developed by introspection and seeking out yourself and your own skill. This might mean that we will have to change the genre or abandon a failed story. But the heart of a story is never out of reach.