[Update Jan. 5, 2021: I’ve updated the pronouns used throughout this article to be more consciously aware and sensitive to Eddie’s chosen pronouns. Please leave a comment if you happen to come across any I missed.]
Many of you are aware that I had the opportunity to see Eddie Izzard in concert last week as part of her “Force Majeure” tour. What I didn’t mention on social media that night, however, is that I had the great privilege of attending a Q&A session with her after the show.
Most of the questions that evening were the usual, non-professional interview type questions: What’s the one thing you’d tell your younger self if you could go back to the past? What inspired you to become a comedian? What shade of lipstick do you wear? You know…the usual. But the last question of the evening made me devote my full attention to the answer.
“Do you have any idea how talented you are?”
Those of you who have followed me for a while know that one of the drums I beat incessantly is “writing is a learned craft, not a mystical gift from the universe.” So you can imagine how my ears perked up when I heard this question. I had to know how a person who had obviously made it in a creative profession would comment on talent.
Eddie answered the other questions without hesitation, with the typical grace of a classy person who has to answer the same questions over and over. She did so with a great deal of humor, of course! I mean, come on! She’s Eddie Freaking Izzard!
When this question was asked, however, she paused for a second and grew very serious. People chuckled a little bit, as if expecting another punchline of some sort. But Eddie spoke up finally and politely asked us all to “shut the fuck up” (with the sort of humorous delivery that only Izzard could pull off).
I’m going to have to paraphrase what she said, because I wasn’t quick enough with my cell phone to record her answer. When the crowd finally settled down, a few folks collectively “ooh”d and “ahhh”d, but she responded with “No, I want to answer this question.”
She said the answer to that question is “not very”. People tried to laugh it off, but she quieted them down. She said, paraphrasing here, “No, I’m serious. And I want to answer this seriously because I know some of you out there want to do this…what I’m doing right now. I was not a particularly talented comedian, and anyone who attended the same comedy workshops I did when I was starting out will tell you the same. I got here through hard work. I had to work constantly at it. I had to dig down deep and wrench it out of myself, and every day was a struggle. It took me more than a decade of hard work to get good at it. I wasn’t born a comedian by any means.”
When I heard her say that, my spine tingled. In a good way. Here was one of the most successful comedians of our day, capable of switching gears and giving us some of the most incredible dramatic performances on television, and she didn’t think she was talented.
Understand, she wasn’t being overly modest or humorously self-deprecating. She was absolutely serious.
She didn’t stop there.
She told a story about an interview she did when she was first breaking into dramatic acting. She had already seen great success as a comedian, but she was determined to branch out. The interviewer asked “Wouldn’t you rather be a great comedian than a so-so actor? Why branch out now?”
Her answer summed the situation up nicely. She responded, “You know, I was once a so-so comic.”
So why am I telling you all of this?
It’s imperative when you’re starting out to embrace the fact that you’re going to be a “so-so writer”. I go so far as to say you’re probably going to suck at it. A lot. You are not going to start your writing career as a great writer. I’m assuming, of course, that I’m speaking to 99% of the writer population who are not prodigies. If you are a prodigy, then you’re not reading this anyway. You don’t need to read articles on writing.
The path to greatness is paved with failure. This is the way it has always been. I’ve said before that in my day job (software engineering), we have a saying: “Fail early, fail often.”
We learn through failure. We learn by trying something and discovering it doesn’t work quite the way we thought it would…or at all. This builds our base of knowledge. It builds our craft!
You’re a so-so writer now. So what! The more you work, the better you’ll get. And just like Eddie Izzard, one day you’ll look back and say “I used to be a so-so writer, you know.”
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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I couldn’t agree more with your comments about failure. I’ve learnt more from writing badly – AND having honest critiques – than I’ve ever learnt from positive reviews. Thanks for the post. Izzard is an inspiration 🙂
He really is. I looked forward to the show for some time, and I knew I was going to have a hilarious evening in store. But I never expected to come away with such a poignant point.
The feeling I got was hard to describe, but I’m sure you’ve experienced it before. It was that feeling you get when someone simply speaks the Truth, and though you have no experiential basis to truly understand what is being said, you simply know it to be Truth.
Thank you Nat. I know you passed this along in person, but reading it here helps. I may just be doing a lot of fb posting for now but someday I’ll have enough legos to build something cool.
Keep at it! Sometimes the legos need a little help to dislodge themselves from the package. 🙂
We had the pleasure of meeting Eddie once and when my son said “Eddie you’re a genius” Eddie said “ahh, but only some of the time.” That’s what I’ve always loved about him. He’s very humble. Great article.
Thank you, Rosemarie!
He is truly one of a kind. I can’t wait for his next tour! 🙂
<3 Eddie. Thanks for sharing this, Nat. Very moving, and very true. Thousands of pages of writing need to be thrown away before the ones that hit daylight. The best writing is a combination of hard work, incredible passion, and yeah, a smidge of natural talent.
It really struck a chord with me when he started discussing talent! Necromancer Awakening is actually my first completed novel, but what many don’t realize is that it was rewritten about a dozen times over the course of 3 years. When I look at the 1st draft, I cringe! I had to throw so much away while I was perfecting my craft!
Great article. Really helps put things into perspective. Keep on keepin’ on!
Lovely blog. Love Eddie, and love what you took from his words. As a new author (with some success to my name – nothing like yours, but a good start!), I swing wildly between gleeful optimism and Marvin-like pessimism over everything. Every negative review feels like having your heart ripped out, and every great review means an initial euphoric high followed by piles of expectation and pressure heaped on you… but you have to keep going. Keep working. Keep trying. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get there:-)
Thank you CJ!
I concur with what you say about reviews. It can be an emotional roller coaster!
What I like about Izzard’s thoughtful answer is that it highlights how similar all of the creative arts are. We are expressive, sentient animals who need to find ways of sharing our sometimes nominally interesting notions with others. That is all. It doesn’t necessarily mean we will all be good at it BUT it does mean that, with practice, we might just become passable.
Exactly, Jon. Many creative types confuse “talented person” with “prodigy”, and I think it discourages many from pursuing their goals. Prodigies are few and far between, and they’re the one class of talented individuals of which I’m willing to say “Ok…the universe handed them this by some mysterious means.” But the rest of us have to put in the work and improve over time.
I remember what one writing teacher said about talent. The students without talent worked their butts off. The students with talent knew they could write and so didn’t try hard. The talented writers could never advance and never wrote anything great. The untalented but hard-working writers eventually surpassed them. She had no respect for talent.
I am absolutely convinced that hard work will almost invariably trump talent.
Pingback: Listen to what Eddie Izzard has to say about talent | You can't hide the spark!
‘Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story’ is great on this: http://youtu.be/lrOObmvucZI
That looks fantastic! Thanks for sharing.
I’m learning this lesson with every book I write. They may not make the best-seller list, but that won’t stop me from writing. Perhaps, before my 95th birthday, I’ll get on that list. Only 32 years to go! That’s what happens when we’re late to the party–of anything :).
Great post! Thank you for sharing, Nat. It’s always a breath of fresh air when a creative individual takes a moment to (yet again) dispel the myth that “you either have that magical spark or you don’t.” Success is born of relentless hard work and perseverance in the face of failure. Keep on keeping on, all you creative cats! Happy writing to you. 🙂
It was a wonderful confirmation of something I’d long believed to be true. We may not be born prodigies, but with hard work we can be pretty darned good.