When I was about 14 years old, my (then) English teacher commented on my lack of “natural talent” in the subject.
I was four when my family moved to New Zealand, so I was as fluent as a child could be in English by the time I was eight or nine. But in the back of my young mind, there was always something about being a migrant – of never being able to tick the “native speaker” box – that made me feel like I was always going to be one step behind everyone else during English class.
I knew that the teacher meant well, hoping to encourage me to work a bit harder in class, but her remarks confirmed something that I had decided a long time ago: I was definitely not an “English” person, in the same way that my friends had declared themselves to not be “maths” or “sciencey” people.
Yesterday, an op-ed I wrote on international students was published in the NZ Herald. After reading the article, a few friends mentioned that I was “talented” at writing. It made me smile to think that, having banished this idea of being “talented” from my mind some ten or so years ago, others might now view me in that way.
Despite declaring myself to be a “Not-An-English-Person”, I absolutely adored the subject in high school. I remember writing extensive essays for fun because I was fascinated with how the stories and characters contained within books and movies could convey such timeless insights into human nature.
When I went to university, this interest overrode the conventional wisdom of choosing courses that I knew I would be good at – which is how I ended up in my first philosophy lecture. And, contrary to popular belief, I found my BA to be quite challenging. Coupled with the fact that I now have a law degree and enjoy writing (good or badly) for fun, I would have to say that I no longer associate myself with being (or, in my case, not being) an “English” person, in the sense that I no longer correlate “English” and “writing” with “hard” and “impossible”.
The hardest part about writing isn’t really the writing part at all. Like any other activity, the more that you do, the better you will get. The other assumption that prevents people from writing, myself included, is the idea that every story needs to be original and fresh. I consider my day-to-day life to be pretty mundane (I wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, go for a run, make dinner, check emails, sleep – repeat) but I think in every single mundane day is a new experience of some kind and an opportunity for change and growth, however small. The best stories are actually those that describe something quite ordinary in an extraordinary (by which I mean different) way, or where the author shares with the reader a glimpse into their soul, so to speak.
I don’t believe that people can be “talented” and, more importantly, “not talented” at writing, because the capacity to share ideas and to tell stories is a very innate human ability. You can always improve the way you pull your words and thoughts together, but that’s nothing that a bit of trial and error can’t fix. In some ways, I am grateful to my English teacher. Knowing that I wasn’t “talented” meant that I no longer tried hard to be. Instead, I spent my time on the things that interested me, without thinking too hard about who was going to read it and whether it was going to result in a good or bad mark.
And I am all the better for it.