The Talent Question

The other day, after seeing this Vine…

…my friend Penn Jillette emailed me: “unless they suck.”  Now, I sort of spoke to that in this Vine…

But that’s an incomplete answer, as any answer given in six seconds has to be.

I wrote Penn back, laughing, and asked if that’s what he really thought. Now, you have to understand that Penn is someone I take very seriously; he’s been an artistic inspiration since the first time I saw him perform, at the West Side Arts theater, off-Broadway, when I was 19 or 20 years old. The monologue he gave at the end of the show, about what it takes to be a fire-eater, remains one of the seminal theater going moments of my life. It’s also one of the most fervent, honest and accurate descriptions of the dedication it takes to become an artist that I’ve ever heard. And, as Penn himself points out, it looks cool. 

Penn’s been a big champion of the Vine series I’ve been doing. So I wanted to dig in and understand if he was just kidding around or not. 

He then wrote a follow-up email, pointing to a Bukowski quote that suggests the best thing one could do for aspiring writers and artists of all stripes would just be to DISCOURAGE them instead of ENCOURAGING them.

The point being that if someone really needs to do it, the discouragement won’t work. They will forge ahead regardless. And it will save the person who quit a whole bunch of time and energy. His paraphrase of the Bukowski was “the kindest thing you can do is tell someone not to write because it won’t work on the people who need to write.” (I can’t find the exact quote. If anyone can, please let me know and I’ll put it in.)  Penn didn’t endorse this position, just thought it was worth looking at. I understand why.

For a long time, actually, I held to that same opinion. It’s part of what I hated about the entire screenwriting guru industry and, in fact, the entire industry of teaching people to write. The truth is, I still think talent ultimately determines artistic success. And by success, I am not referring to commercial success. Though that too is largely determined by talent.  


I have come to think that sometimes, maybe often, talent hides. And that I’d rather help people find a way to discover that hidden or latent talent. I think it’s worthwhile pursuit for people whether they end up unearthing that talent or not. The sort of deep diving I’m talking about, achieved by slugging it out every day, using things like journaling, meditation, long walks to help, offers massive benefit regardless of the quality of the artistic work produced. As does just doing something really hard, like finishing a draft of a novel or a screenplay. 

The positive effects of this kind of success can be stunning. And not just in self-esteem. When an individual has been blocked, stunted, and then breaks through it, producing a completed piece of work, something changes in them forever.  And it’s something that the people in their lives notice. In a really good way. It just makes them easier to be around, better company at the dinner table. 

And so that alone would make me want to continue to help people drive themselves forward.  But there’s another reason too. The one group of people in all creative fields that I despise maybe as much as the false prophets who hold themselves out as experts without having accomplishment to back it up, are the gate-keepers. Especially those gate-keepers who are more interested in keeping their jobs than in nurturing worthwhile creative voices. Included in this group are everyone from college drama teacher to reader at book company to screenplay reader for a production company to junior A&R person at a music company (I was an A&R guy in an earlier life. I know from whence I speak).  Let me add to that, actually: I also include lower school art teachers and english teachers who, far too often, have a rigidity in their approach that kills burgeoning creativity in their students, favoring those who draw within the lines both literally and figuratively. 

Sure, there have always been curators. They serve a useful, necessary purpose. But as art has become more commoditized, the range of their vision has shrunk.  

I guess what I want to say to my friend is this: what I have come to believe is the world is already out there dispensing “reality,” discouraging the creative journey, tamping down enthusiasm, limiting opportunity. So I want to stand there in the face of that reality, cheering, lifting up, rooting. 

Is it possible you’re not going to sell that book you’re writing or picture your painting or screenplay you’re in the middle of outlining? It’s not only possible. It’s likely. Isn’t it fucking awesome that you are doing anyway? 

I think it is. And I want to help you get to the finish line any way I can. Once you’re there, you’ll find plenty of people to tell you how you screwed up.

But you’ll know that at least you ran the race and didn’t quit when it started to hurt.  And you’ll be that much more ready to run the next one.

UPDATE: So after I posted this, Penn emailed to say he’d read it, agrees, and I should feel free to say so. So, I’m saying so. Glad we’re in sync on this.

Published by

Brian Koppelman

I'm co-creator/Executive producer of Showtime's Billions. Some of the films I've either written/produced/directed are Solitary Man, Rounders, Ocean's Thirteen, Knockaround Guys, Runaway Jury, The Girlfriend Experience & the 30/30 Documentary on Jimmy Connors. I'm also the host of the podcast The Moment.

17 thoughts on “The Talent Question”

  1. My desire to write is as much a part of me as breathing and bleeding. I wake up thinking about writing, I go to sleep thinking about writing. It’s become an obsession. I’ve mentally prepared myself to be single forever because the thought of having to compromise my time or have my writing time interrupted scares the shit out of me.

    This past november I had a conversation with someone living in NY, their life was so profoundly interesting that I felt it would make an amazing drama series with a strong female lead. I packed my shit up and moved, now I’m couch surfing, meeting with her every day via Skype and text prepping my pilot but again, I’m in love writing. My blood type is Courier Final Draft.

    I don’t want to run on and on but the greatest advice I ever got was from Richard Arlook, a lit manager who I credit with giving me the school of hard knocks treatment as I grew in my craft. I used to moan and bitch and complain and he’d simply reply with “you could always quit, or try another field.” and those words stung but in retrospect all it did was strengthen my resolve.

    I truly appreciate your 6 second lessons and I’ve sacrificed and lost everything in the name of writing but luckily I have a Master’s Degree from Emerson so I have to pause and admit I’m being a little to dramatic here. You get my drift lol!!


  2. Great stuff, Brian.

    In his gut wrenching “Last Lecture” dying Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch makes a similar point about talent and desire to his kids –

    “… remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. … ”

    But the larger question is can talent be taught? I think maybe it can be, but probably not by a thousand dollar weekend retreat with a self-proclaimed screenwriting guru.

    I’m no Norman Rockwell, but I can draw well enough to have won a few awards in school and make a living as an illustrator. All my life I’ve been around people who said they wished they could draw but didn’t have the talent.
    I always recommend they read Betty Edwards’ book – “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” a terrific look at how and where talent for drawing comes from. It truly teaches how to see, how to create and how to use your brain creatively.

    As far as I know, no one I’ve recommended it to has wanted to put in the time, effort and practice to develop their talent. Because it’s not easy. To me, that’s what real talent is – learning the tools and then using them over time to allow yourself to develop the control of the fundamentals to express the vision you see, be that a drawing, a magic trick, a musical solo or a screenplay.

    The problem with talent is that people see it as magical when it appears in front of them, they rarely see the years of practice that came before the moment.

  3. I write because I love it. I write every day for an hour or more in the morning. It wasn’t always this way, I returned to college in 2007 to get a degree in something that will pay (my major is Marine Geology), and I rediscovered my love of writing. So while I suffer through Calculus and Chemistry I know for an hour each morning I can be a commando in west Africa, bang a bunch of Playboy playmates, be an astronaut or a cowboy, or send a demon squid monster to kill my landlord.

    It would be nice to get published, it really would, and this year I will focus on this task. I’m still going to write anyway…just for ,me…

    You’ve become the latest voice in my head, thank you.

  4. I don’t think it’s a race. There is no finish line. If there is, it moves ahead quickly. In my opinion NOBODY wastes their time on any project of artistic endeavor. It keeps you moving forward.

    From what I’ve witnessed it’s work, perseverance, luck and then talent. I’ve seen it happen over and over.

    If you have “natural talent” it cannot grow to fruition without work, perseverance and luck.

    Work it. See what works and adjust your sails. Work it harder and you’ll recognize luck when it visits. Talent will reveal itself in time. It should be of no concern to the artist.

  5. I really don’t agree with Penn on this one and I prefer your approach, Brian. Encouragement is essential and gate-keepers are a nuisance of our creative world. I don’t agree with all your vines (okay, I disagree with 3% of them), but your encouragement is helping me a lot and I’m thankful for that. Keep going.

  6. That was a seriously spectacular blog entry — filled with so much wisdom. That’s why the bit about despising gatekeepers was so disheartening. Hating on grade school English teachers? Really?

    “Especially those gate-keepers who are more interested in keeping their jobs than in nurturing worthwhile creative voices.”

    Sir, that’s everyone in a gate-keeper position. No one wants to lose their job, because if they do lose their job then they won’t be able to support themselves, never mind nurturing worthwhile creative voices — which is impossible to do if you’re homeless.

    And readers? Maestro, the reader has a tough job. They dive through an ocean of crap in search of a single pearl that they may never find. It is not their job to nurture talent, there is no time for it. They will be fired for trying to do so. Their job is just to evaluate and track product and talent.

    1 screenplay out of 1000 gets a Recommend. 1. Out of 100 screenplays, there might be 10 or so that have something worthwhile about them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of screenplays are simply terrible. But the poor reader has to read them until the end, synopsize them, and criticize them.

    Don’t hate the gatekeepers for not nurturing or encouraging worthwhile creative voices — talent will out itself. Blame the gatekeepers for not better discouraging the talentless. The system is clogged with crap, making it that much harder to find the pearls in that ocean of shit.

    Mr. Koppelman, allow me to thank you for all the good you are doing out there in dispelling screenwriting myths. Most of what you say is gold. I just happen to disagree with despising gatekeepers.

    Finally, I think the Bukowski quote you are looking for might be in his poem: So You Want To Be A Writer

    1. Thanks. I do not mean to indict all gatekeepers. Only those who have become bitter and reductive and dispiriting.

  7. Ah, thank you for the clarification sir. It’s much appreciated. By the way, ROUNDERS is still incredibly awesome.

  8. “I also include lower school art teachers and english teachers who, far too often, have a rigidity in their approach that kills burgeoning creativity in their students, favoring those who draw within the lines both literally and figuratively.”

    God. I still remember my 8th grade English teacher ripping me a new one after class because she didn’t understand my essay on some b.s. YA novel where I broke down the character journeys of both leads and pointed out how they were constructed in reflection to one another. She sat there and told me, “Your high school teachers are going to have fun with you.” I am 29 and I still remember that moment. Thanks bitch for like, NOT encouraging me AT ALL.

    Everything is subjective.

    Oh and, although I agree with everything said here your line about how it’s likely you are “wasting time” writing whatever basically goes against everything you say here about encouraging creatives.

    If anything that didn’t lead to a sale or a career move was “wasting time” then I’d say 99% of all of our lives are a waste of time. Which is, of course, utter bullshit.

  9. I’ll be turning 33 later this year. I started screenwriting when I was 28. It’s suddenly hit me that if my writing is going to take off, it might be when I’m 40. Is this an unnecessary worry? Thanks, love the vines, helped me through some patches.

    1. Hi, I wrote my first screenplay at 30, so I understand your thought process. Truth is, it may be slightly harder to get that very first read the older your get. But if you write something great, that cuts through the noise, your age won’t matter at all. Keep writing. Keep believing.

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